Thursday, March 25, 2004

Archie Shepp & Amina Claudine Myers - 24/03/2004, Brussels

Arriving at the PP Café, I was stunned by the huge line of people waiting to get into the already packed bar. I guess "Archie Shepp" and "free" attract a crowd. I was also surprised by the level of name recognition: one guy passing by stopped in front of the sign and, stunned, asked "Is it really Archie Shepp?"



I was wondering what state we'd find him in, as on the latest album of his I have, One Night Alone, a duo with Mal Waldron, he's quite unsteady, even if the album as a whole is nice enough. Furthermore the recently (and needlessly, if you ask me) re-issued I Know About the Life is rather uninteresting, but that was recorded quite some time ago. Given these fears, it was great to see that Shepp was in fine form, especially as I'd never seen him before. Of course, long gone is the merciless explosivity of '60s and '70s: he just plays and sings the blues now, but has integrated the cries and wails of hot-blooded free jazz (no honks though - his lower register has litterally vaporised into thin air) into his blues playing in a non-clichéd and highly-effective way. On soprano, Shepp was a bit less at ease, but far from cringe-worthy (as he is on a Bechet tribute album I have). Especially during the first set, Myers reminded me of Mal Waldron, using minimal, blues-based building blocks and a slow, regular pace to create a hypnotic trance. Both her singing and her playing were light and nimble, but very deep at the same time. While consisting of blues and a standard or two, the first set ended with a slightly more sprightly and rousing gospel tune.

During the break I moved from the very back of the packed room to the very front and my enjoyment of the music increased proportionately. They started with "'Round Midnight" (it was 11:30 PM) and both Shepp and Myers were absolutely magnificent. No notes were wasted, nothing was insincere, complex or merely for show: everything played was right. The crowd really got into the following 12-bar blues and the vocal exchanges between Myers and Shepp about - what else? - a man, a woman, cheating and reconciliation. On "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," Myers effected a welcome change of pace by abandoning the blues for a bit and accompanying Shepp's soprano with more classical-sounding, sustained arpeggios, creating a less rhythmic and more dramatic atmosphere that spilled over into her own solo. The night ended with a couple of trusty old 12-bar blues, the kind you could go on playing for ever and ever.