Review: Archie Shepp at Ronnie's

Andy Hamilton finds the 78-year-old saxophonist in fine form, even if he's no longer the avant-garde free jazz player of past decades

I caught the first set by the 78-year-old saxophonist, who was returning to Ronnie Scott's club after a gap of – so the MC suggested – 40-odd years. The set was preceded by support band Curios, featuring Tom Cawley (piano), Sam Burgess (bass) and Joshua Blackmore (drums), with some clever, stylish, whimsical compositions rather reminiscent of the work of Kit Downes – or maybe that should be the other way round. Cawley's favourite pianist, he confided, was Phineas Newborn Jr., which figured. One topical piece from the trio's forthcoming album was Mistakes Have Started To Creep Into My Game, which the pianist-leader rather cruelly dedicated to the Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke. (Australia had just been defeated in the Third Test at Edgbaston.)

The main act featured an older quartet of players, their combined age approaching 300 years. Bassist Wayne Dockery excepted, this was a hat-band, with Archie Shepp on tenor, soprano and vocals (homburg), Tom McClung on piano (fedora), and Steve McCraven on drums (homburg). It's a long- time group – three-quarters of it appeared on Black Ballads from 1992, since when McClung replaced Horace Parlan on piano.

Shepp's later career has been one of consolidation, and it's become increasingly hard to recognise him as the free jazz avant-gardist of the late 50s and 60s. But though his groups now favour a more traditional, less collective improvisational format, his style and sound on saxophone are still indebted to the free-jazz paradigm of melodic fragmentation and vocalised tone. The kind of programme he offered at Scott's wasn't too different to that of his live recording Montreux One from 1975, for instance, except that his partners at that time – such as pianist Dave Burrell – had roots in free jazz.

The band began with Hope 2, an uptempo modal vamp plus changes original, dedicated to pianist Elmo Hope. This was a challenging number to start with, but Shepp's long opening solo showed he can still cut it. He now plays sitting on a stool, but apart from that, there was little evidence of slowing down; his embouchure on tenor seems to have got more mobile and distended, but he was still in full control. Don’t Get Around Much Any More didn't create much new out of the Ellington standard, and McClung showed he's a pretty straightforward bluesy pianist. Shepp delivered a vocal, which he did with increasing power on every subsequent number.

Steam is an original composition dedicated by Shepp to his cousin whose nickname it was, who died in a street brawl in Philadelphia. This was his only outing on soprano, and the hard-to-control instrument seemed to be taxing him. Trippin’, a down-home 12-bar blues with an exuberant vocal, showed the leader's populist skills. The drummer's Art Blakeyish, top of the beat feel, and boogie-woogie from the pianist, added to the impression. The blues has always been central to the saxophonist's art, but he's been working on his singing since I last heard him some years ago. It's now core to his stage act, and he particularly enjoys devices like gliding down from a falsetto. Thelonious Monk's Ask Me Now received a sensitive ballad performance – Shepp's vocal presumably featured his own lyrics. Bassist Wayne Dockery's solo showed his self-effacing, Ron Carter-like elegance; like the leader, he played seated, which seems always to have been his preference. The Latin-feel The Stars Are In Your Eyes was apparently a tribute to Sarah Vaughan, and the closer was another unpretentious blues, Bessie Smith's Blues.

This wasn't the most avant-garde band that Shepp has led, and he continues his move to the centre of jazz from its free extremes. An amazingly quiet Ronnie Scott's audience – long may this behavioural change continue – listened to him respectfully, and gave him a standing ovation at the end. That was no less than his due, as one of the modern masters of the music.

Photo by Jan Kricke

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