Why Archie Shepp deserves a Grammy for best large jazz ensemble album

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 February, 2015, 10:49pm

Tonight - actually tomorrow morning in Hong Kong but the evening of February 8 in Los Angeles - is a big night for the American recording industry. The 57th Annual Grammy Awards will be presented at the Staples Centre, honouring excellence in composition, performance or some other aspect of record production or packaging across 83 categories.

Jazz or blues artists and albums are represented in 14 of those, ranging from specific jazz awards to those related to roots and Americana, which acknowledges how difficult it is to file music tidily by genre these days.

There should be something to take home for Keb' Mo's BluesAmericana album, which is nominated in the categories of best American roots performance, best Americana album and best-engineered non-classical album.

The Chick Corea Trio's Trilogy has a couple of nominations - for best jazz instrumental album, and for Corea himself for best improvised jazz solo, for Fingerprints. The pianist has won 20 Grammy awards since 1976.

Other contenders in those two categories include Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, Joe Lovano and Brad Mehldau for solos; and Brian Blade, Hersch, Jason Moran and a collective of Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco, and Billy Hart for albums.

However, the category I'll be paying closest attention to is the award for best large jazz ensemble album, which this year is between: the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra for The LA Treasures Project; Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band for Life In The Bubble; Rufus Reid for Quiet Pride : The Elizabeth Catlett Project; The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for Over Time: Music of Bob Brookmeyer; and The Archie Shepp Attica Blues Orchestra for Live: I Hear The Sound.

On the one hand, it would be nice to see the award go to Over Time - a tribute to the late Brookmeyer, which I like very much. He was nominated for a Grammy eight times, but never won, and a posthumous award would be just. On the other hand, composer and saxophonist Shepp is still alive and would be able to pick his award up in person - plus I Hear The Sound is a worthy contender.

Back in the 1960s and early '70s, a lot of people thought Shepp was frightening because his was an articulately forthright and often angry voice on civil rights and other black American issues. Over the years he has remained a passionate musician, but become a much less choleric character. Although strongly associated with free jazz, particularly through his work with Cecil Taylor and late-career John Coltrane, he also has an expressive gift for blues and ballads on which he has increasingly focused.

Much of I Hear The Sound is a remake of the album Attica Blues, released in 1972 on Impulse! - a project which wove together multiple elements of black American musical culture, ornamented, not always to advantage, by spoken-word passages. It was Shepp's reaction to the 1971 Attica Prison riot and its bloody suppression.

The original album has not aged that well, but it contains some strong compositions, brought up to date in this live recording, and shorn of the dated sounding "invocations" which punctuate the 1972 version.

I Hear The Sound was recorded live over two performances at jazz festivals in France in 2012 and 2013, and features an international 26-piece orchestra of European and American players, fronted by Shepp on vocals, tenor and soprano saxes.

The tracks have been reordered, and additional music including Duke Ellington's Come Sunday interpolated. This album should stand the test of time better than the original.

Shepp was more than just an angry voice, and has spent a richly fruitful career putting his energies not just into playing jazz but also to working in theatre and as a music educator. A Grammy award for music, more than four decades after it was first performed, would be a good result.

Take Three

Three noteworthy albums in the career of Archie Shepp.

  • Four For Trane (1964, Impulse!): John Coltrane employed Shepp - he appears on the landmark Ascension album - and got him his recording contract with Impulse! This set, thought by some to be Shepp's finest recorded hour, was a "thank you" to the boss.
  • Fire Music (1965, Impulse!): originally a five-track set, the music here is challenging and closes with possibly the least lounge-like performance of The Girl from Ipanema ever recorded. There are six tracks on the CD, including a bonus 11-minute reprise of the opening track, Hambone, recorded live at Village Gate.
  • Trouble In Mind (1980, SteepleChase): a strong blues set in a duet format with pianist Horace Parlan takes Shepp back to the fundamentals of his art.