When Archie Shepp appeared at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2005, it was the highlight of the London Jazz Festival. The one-time firebrand of the 1960s avant-garde revealed himself to be a one-man history book of jazz, dipping into a range of styles from hollering shuffle blues, shades of the fierce free jazz with which he was formerly so associated, pan-African radicalism, and standards by Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller.
Many of the same elements were in place at the Jazz Café: the same superb backing trio of Tom McClung on piano, Wayne Dockery on bass and Steve McCraven on drums; much of the material was the same, and Shepp again alternated between blowing on tenor and soprano saxes and singing; although that last verb hardly does justice to Shepp's remarkable vocals.
At 69, the vibrato on his baritone, Billy Eckstine-like voice has slowed and widened to encompass a range of notes around the one he's actually singing. At any time he's liable to depart from this warm, reassuring sound and break off into a gruff screech, his face twisted into a menacing scowl under his trademark trilby.
On this visit, it all came together best on Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin' ". It's a tune that can seem sweet and overly familiar in the wrong hands, but Shepp sang it like a ramshackle drunk; on both vocals and tenor sax it was though he fell down the stairs and then picked himself up to produce a brief stream of notes in a moment's lucidity. If Shepp was all tumbling eloquence, then Dockery's solid, clear-toned bass was the more sober friend helping to provide at least some steadiness, while McClung's solo on the piano was appropriately liquid.
Although his solos on tenor sax were rather short - he often ended them abruptly by turning to the audience with a bow, as if to say: "I have finished for now, so you may applaud" - his sound is still a delight. Harmonically, he may have picked up from where Coltrane left off, and his rhythm section could be modelled on Trane's vintage quartet from the My Favourite Things period, but Shepp's tone owes more to the burnished earthiness of Ben Webster. It's like a well-worn and much-loved piece of leather grown gorgeously soft to the touch; if it's fraying around the edges, then that is also a part of its charm.
But the magic was only present here and there at the Jazz Café. The more forceful numbers failed to ignite properly, although the reliable McClung produced some excellent solos. The venue was packed, but some in the audience were obviously not regular jazz listeners and talked loudly through the quieter numbers. There were problems with the sound. It felt as though Shepp knew he wasn't being treated with quite enough respect, so decided to return the favour.Reuse content