As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last weekend in Chicago soaking in some outdoor jazz. The festival was pleasant, well-attended and the music was enjoyable. I won't give any extensive reviews here--I'll leave that to someone else--but I do want to mention my favorite set of the weekend. That was Archie Shepp's.
Archie Shepp plays with an incredible pathos that is most definitely the product of years of total immersion as a musician, educator and activist. He is one of these former radicals who has seemingly turned inward in his old age. Specifically, he played a version of Steam completely lacking the despair and seething anger that pervaded the original version on Attica Blues. Attica Blues itself is actually a remarkably reflective and subdued album, given that it's inspiration was the Attica Prison riot. Still, it feels to me like a sort of collective reflection, still a purposeful and forceful record. The Chicago Steam, on the other hand, was very much personal, introspective, and despite the subject matter (Shepp's murdered cousin), somehow nostalgic.
In a way, it makes me think that those troubled times in the 60s and early 70s were somehow the good old days for guys like Shepp, because at least there was a genuine feeling that things could change. Jazz at that time, whether it was Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Trane, Max Roach, Mingus, Miles, exuded a certain rage, and an implied, if not direct, call to arms. Some of those guys who are still around, Shepp among them, now play a wistful, almost dreamlike music whose power is not of this moment, but derived from another time. It's a beautiful and sometimes sad music, powerful in its implicit lament of what could have been.
Archie oozed that feeling with Duke's Don't Get Around Much Anymore, which he sang ("Oh, Darling I guess my mind's more at ease, but nevertheless, why stir up memories"). It was fitting that he worked in a more explicitly reminiscent tune, whose themes ran through his entire set. It reminded me, although it was far more earnest, of Lou Donaldson's Things Ain't What They Used To Be, which I described a few weeks back. The same Archie Shepp who, in a more radical time, notoriously berated white audiences with his friend Amiri Baraka (Baraka famously told a white woman who asked what white people can do to help the black civil rights struggle, "You can die"), ended this set by demanding that his overwhelmingly white audience stand up, turn around, clap your hands...It's true that things ain't what they used to be.
I hope to have to pictures I took from this set up soon.
P.S.: For contrast, compare this set to Cecil Taylor's that I caught at the Highline Ballroom recently. Cecil has not backed down one inch musically. The guy is something like 82 years old, but if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn't have been able to tell if I was listening to Cecil Taylor 2009 or Cecil Taylor 1969. I have no words for his set except to say that seeing him in full force was something very special.
(Best I could do--no cameras allowed)