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Black Ballads

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Album Review

Tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, who was one of the enfant terribles of the free jazz generation in the 1960s, once said, seemingly uncharacteristically, "You can hear every minute of every hour of every day of every year a player puts into practicing his horn when he plays a ballad." He was being prophetic, of course, as this date from 1992 suggests. Teamed with pianist Horace Parlan — with whom he recorded the magnificent duet of spirituals Goin' Home — bassist Wayne Dockery, and drummer Steve McCraven, Shepp leads the quartet through an astonishing series of ballads that are as revelatory for their understatement as they are for their musical aplomb. Shepp takes the Ben Webster approach on these 11 sides and comes off as a singer of songs (he is not singing) rather than as a saxophone player. His readings of "Angel Eyes," "All Too Soon," and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and his souled-out cover of "Georgia on My Mind," are stunning for the restraint and nuance they contain. Parlan's comping slips toward fills of uncommon texture and dimensionality in the bridges of these tunes, and on Shepp's own "I Know About the Life," he reinvents the tune itself. The high point of this glorious record is Shepp's own "Déjà Vu," as it comes out of an uncommonly long "Lush Life," where the lyric of both compositions becomes a kind of recitation on the blues in stretched time. Issued on the Timeless label, this is a must-have for all Shepp fans, but more importantly, it is for all followers of the development in harmonic thinking about the ballad form in jazz.


Born: 24 May 1937 in Fort Lauderdale, FL

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Archie Shepp has been at various times a feared firebrand and radical, soulful throwback and contemplative veteran. He was viewed in the '60s as perhaps the most articulate and disturbing member of the free generation, a published playwright willing to speak on the record in unsparing, explicit fashion about social injustice and the anger and rage he felt. His tenor sax solos were searing, harsh, and unrelenting, played with a vivid intensity. But in the '70s, Shepp employed a fatback/swing-based...
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