When British really is best

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It's instructive to compare the new albums by saxophonists Joshua Redman and Andy Sheppard, whose British tour together runs from 19 to 23 May. Redman's Beyond (Warner Bros) begins at a furious pace, with the track "Courage" recalling Cole Porter's "Love For Sale" taken at full tilt. The velocity then slows for the inevitable smoochy ballad entitled "Neverend", and several ruminative grooves which follow it, including the beautiful "Balance", which features a guest appearance by Mark Turner on tenor saxophone.

Redman plays feelingly throughout, and the band of Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums is well up to the mark, but somehow it all seems a bit redundant, like a scene-by-scene remake of an old Hollywood film that wasn't that good in the first place. All the tracks are original compositions, but none have much of a signature to them, except perhaps "Twilight... And Beyond", an 11-minute slow-burn in which Redman and drummer Hutchinson get ever more heated. Here, there's a sudden sense of risk that makes everything come alive; but then the next track starts (which sounds exactly like "Summertime") and it dies again.

If this really is the best that Redman - who's a terrific player - and his label can do, then the crisis in American jazz is even worse than we thought.

Andy Sheppard's Dancing Man and Woman (Provocateur), by contrast, is a real accomplishment, slightly roughening up the rather too sweet melodies of his last release for the label to make a sinuous, intricately layered collection that rewards repeated listening. The band is the same as the last release, with the addition of Steve Swallow on electric bass (as well as Chris Laurence on acoustic bass), and tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, and the new recruits add subtly to the dense textural detail. As with Redman, all the tunes are original compositions and Sheppard once again mixes what sound like European and African folk themes with sophisticated post-bop writing in the manner of Carla Bley. Everything's good, but the third track, "Meeting Sylvan" is a killer: a breathy ballad in which Sheppard sounds at the very top of his form.

As usual, the weak links are keyboardist Steve Lodder's rinky-dink synthesiser voicings and a perhaps too easy reliance on guitarist John Parricelli's African high-life button, but this is thrilling stuff.

For a real blast from the saxophone past, you can hardly do better than Archie Shepp. The re-release of two albums from the archives of the French label BYG on the CD Blase/ Live At The Pan-African Festival (Charly Records) is doubly essential. The first album, with Shepp in the eccentric company of vocalist Jeanne Lee, trumpeter Lester Bowie, two Chicago harmonica players and a rhythm section of Dave Burrell, Malachi Favors and Philly Joe Jones, contains three absolute classics: Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady","There is a Balm in Gilead" and the super-cool "Blase" itself.

The second album, which like the first, dates from 1969, is a quite remarkable historical document (which means, of course, that you won't actually listen to it very often).

Recorded at a festival in Algiers organised by the FLN, Shepp and his quartet are heard jamming with a massed band of Tuareg percussionists and pipers, like Brian Jones' "Joujouka" music given a funky, black-power spin. There are only two tracks, but one of them, "We Have Come Back", lasts for 31 minutes. Based on a poem by Ted Joans, the track begins with a recitation. "Jazz is an African music", Shepp declaims over and over; "We have come back!"

After some strikingly eerie muezzin-type wails, the drums begin. Then it starts to get really strange. The same Charly series (under the banner "Actuel") also features BYG titles by Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago andDon Cherry.