I had the chance to study with Archie Shepp for a several months in the fall of 1998. At the time I was just a young, inexperienced and generally petrified kid. Not to mention the fact that Archie was incredibly physically imposing and spoke in a perpetually aggressive manner. I also placed an inordinate amount of significance on the fact that he was the only musician I had met at the time who had hung out and recorded with Coltrane. Incidentally, I had no awareness of how the general public perceived Archie Shepp: Non-musician Hipsters relish him as some sort of idealized 60’s avant-garde icon, while some straight-ahead players tend to simply dismiss him altogether.
The real Archie Shepp can’t be compartmentalized within such a narrow spectrum of opinion. The man I encountered seemed to know every single tune in the American Songbook and would accompany me on the piano most of the time. He had long since abandoned “free” playing but still possessed a coarse tone on the saxophone. On ballads, he played with a breathy vibrato that landed somewhere between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Most importantly, Archie had what was perhaps the most exhaustive blues lexicon I have ever encountered.
Honestly, I could write a book on the advice he gave me. Everything he told me about jazz turned out to be factually correct. I rejected nothing but was too young to really understand what he was trying to put across to me. I could always count on experiencing a huge spike of anxiety every Wednesday due to the oncoming verbal assault I was about to receive at the hands of Mr. Shepp. The only sorrow I have about studying with him was that I wished I were a better player at that time. Regretfully, I never got a chance to show him my progression because he abandoned America for Paris shortly after that time period. Someday I will share some of the stories Archie Shepp told me about other jazz musicians and his life as a whole.
I chose “Goin’ Home” as my Archie Shepp favorite because I think it represents one of his greatest artistic and spiritual achievements on record. This duo with pianist Horace Parlan features a collection of jazz interpretations of traditional gospel pieces. Here’s what Archie had to say about the album in a 1982 Downbeat interview:
“I felt I represented everybody who’d ever sang those songs, and to make the meaning of those songs clear was up to me at that point. They should be truthful, they should have the same authenticity as when they were sung, because that’s the nature of this type of folk song. They were created by people who were in deep sorrow; they’re slave songs. And so it challenged my own ability as modern Negro black man to traverse that historical plain. Could I do that? And I felt I could, and the tears were proof of it – that perhaps my condition hadn’t changed so completely that I can’t still feel what they felt.”
- Deep River
- My Lord What A Morning
- Amazing Grace
- Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child
- Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- Goin’ Home
- Nobody Knows The Troubles I’ve Seen
- Go Down Moses
- Steal Away To Jesus
- Archie Shepp-Tenor Saxophone
- Horace Parlan-Piano