When I first spotted the DVD case, I thought Just Friends was a new release. Actually, it's going round for a second time, but is appearing in this part of the world for the first time. It was Archie Shepp's name in the bottom right-hand corner that drew my eye. A 1993 Belgian film, directed by Marc-Henri Wajnberg, Just Friends got a belated theatrical release in China this autumn, and the movie is now widely available here on DVD and VCD. This is in many ways the Belgian counterpart to Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 classic Round Midnight, by which it was probably inspired. The former film was set in Paris in 1959, and Just Friends takes place in the altogether less jazz-attuned city of Antwerp in the same year. Tavernier's protagonist was a black American saxophonist living in Paris, masterfully played by the late Dexter Gordon, but Wajnberg's film revolves around Jack, a Belgian saxophonist whose dream is to live and play in New York. The films explore many of the same themes - the links between music, narcotics and self-destructive behaviour - and have memorably funny and touchingly tragic moments. Both also spring from a romantic and distinctly European view of American music, but while Herbie Hancock - who also appeared in the film - oversaw the soundtrack for Round Midnight and used mostly American musicians with the exception of the great French bassist Pierre Michelot, for Just Friends Belgian pianist and composer Michel Herr stuck with European players, with the exception of Shepp. The result is an intriguing meeting of European bebop and big band-influenced mainstream playing, and Shepp's mature style as a soloist - a full-blown, warm, sonorous sound blending the expressiveness of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins with the speed and agility of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. To those who know his 1960s work, this may not sound much like Shepp. He has long been able to play that way, but is better known for the avant-garde recordings on which he chose not to, and for the accompanying uncompromising attitude. Phillip Larkin wrote memorably of Shepp's music that any listener who thought it represented 'anything other than two fingers extended from a bunched fist cannot have a clear understanding of what they are listening to'. Shepp saw it differently, and blamed a hostile white establishment for any acts of aggression. During a 1960s tour of Japan he announced, live, on television, 'We come here in peace, not like the Americans who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima' at which point one of his bandmates chimed in, 'Don't remind these mother*******!' Profoundly influenced by Coltrane, with whom he collaborated on several projects, most notably Ascension, Shepp has never been afraid to play difficult, sometimes inaccessible, music. At the same time, he has always remembered his roots in blues, early New Orleans jazz, and the African music whence much of the jazz tradition sprang. He refers to bebop as 'the baroque period of Afro-American music'. 'Today when I play 'outside', that is in what they call the avant-garde style, I get a real feeling from that. I play less and less that way because it's not commercially viable,' he says. Elements of the avant garde are never far from the surface of his style, however - although some of the honks and squawks could be equally reasonably attributed to the New Orleans heritage of his music. The Just Friends soundtrack was probably not intended specifically to showcase the many facets of the talent of a remarkable soloist - Shepp is heard throughout the movie every time Josse de Pauw, who plays Jack, picks up his horn - but it has achieved that nevertheless. The big band and some of the quartet tracks show off the sensitive side of his ballad playing, while the bebop outings show his 'baroque' capabilities. The shortest track Cri is pure avant-garde Shepp, clocking in at just 17 seconds and is simply a cry of grief. Herr's original compositions seem to suit Shepp wonderfully well - particularly a fine ballad, Song for Lucy, that he performs twice on the CD, with a quartet and unaccompanied. The quartet, comprising, Shepp, Herr on piano, Riccardo Del Fra on bass and John Engels on drums, is on excellent form throughout. Vocals are handled by a German singer called Silvia Droste, who I hadn't previously heard, but whose albums I shall be looking out for in future. Few soundtrack albums make absolute sense in isolation, and this is no exception, but there is plenty of fine music here. The 1993 release of the film did not apparently give Shepp's career the extra impetus Round Midnight bestowed on Gordon, but perhaps the reissue of Just Friends on DVD will prompt a few listeners to reassess some of his back catalogue.