Budbill: Archie Shepp

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Writer and commentator David Budbill went to Goddard College in
Plainfield recently to watch Archie Shepp get an award for excellence
from the college.

(Budbill) This is the college’s 150th
anniversary and the college is honoring some of its distinguished
alumni. Archie Shepp is a legendary jazz saxophonist and Goddard
alumnus. He graduated from Goddard in 1959.

After the award
ceremony, Shepp’s quartet played a concert, one set about 90 minutes
long. Shepp sang a lot and did a lot of blues shouting. Since Shepp is
also a writer, I figured he wrote the lyrics to most of the songs he
sang. Two lines in one of his songs really got to me. I wrote them down:

Soft as the rain
Sweet as the end of pain.

He also played the tenor and soprano saxophones, mostly tenor.

last time I saw Shepp play was years ago at Sweet Basil’s – now defunct
– on Seventh Avenue near Sheridan Square in New York City, with the
pianist Horace Parlan. During a break Shepp came out into the audience
and was moving from table to table. When he came to us he asked where we
were from and when we told him Vermont, he said, "Oh yeah? I graduated
from Goddard College!"

The combination of grief and energy in
his blues lyrics – that cry of agony and delight – gave everyone there
that night at Goddard an emotional history of black people in America.

piano player – Tom McClung – knocked me out. He played big rich chords,
ran up and down the key board the way a Hammond B-3 player would, yet
he also played sparely, one note, one key, at a time. He reminded me a
lot of Leo Genovese, the piano player on a number of Esperanza
Spalding’s recordings.

I was a little surprised by the choice of
material however. Shepp has either grown conservative in his old age,
he’s 75 now, or he played a concert aimed at the taste of a rural
audience. I don’t know which it was, but he played and sang mostly the
blues or tunes he’d written – one for his daughter, one for Sarah
Vaughn, another for his cousin stabbed to death on the streets of
Philadelphia at the age of 15. He also played standards and played them
pretty much straight-ahead and in the traditional format of head, solos,
back to the head and out. This was not always the case but mostly.

it was Archie and his tone that was most on display that night. Shepp’s
got, in my opinion, the harshest tone on both tenor and soprano
saxophones of anybody alive. I don’t mean to put that tone down; it’s
Archie’s and he owns it and does wonderful things with it. Duke
Ellington said once that a man’s entire personality is in his tone.

tone made me think over and over again that night of a quote from Gil
Evans that goes, "All great music has to have a cry somewhere; all
players and all music – they have to have that cry." Archie Shepp,
whether he’s singing or playing his tenor or soprano, has that cry.

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