Saturday, October 29, 2005

Archie Shepp - Things Have Got To Change

Things Have Got To Change: Live at the Totem Vol. 1
Marge Productions MARGE 08

Recorded 9th January 1979

Side One

1. Poem For Mama Rose
2. Things Have Got To Change

Side Two

1. Things Have Got To Change (continues from side 1)
2. Giant Steps


ARCHIE SHEPP; tenor saxophone
CHEIK TIDIANE FALL; vocal, congas

I know I’ve only just done an Archie Shepp record, but it’s really got me listening to him, so here’s another with a Coltrane connection, featuring as it does a reading of ‘Giant Steps’.

First, though, is the ‘Poem for Mama Rose’, one of his many spoken word introductions, accompanied by some groovy percussion from the band, before launching into the massive ‘Things Have Got To Change’. I say massive, because weighing in at over half an hour in length, it’s split across the two sides of this LP.

In style, the playing is not far from his late 60’s free jazz days. It’s laid out in the standard theme-solos-theme pattern, and is very much in tempo, but there any comparison to traditional hard bop fails. This is inventive, innovative, searching music. Shepp sounds as if he’s trying to reach as yet undiscovered places on his saxophone, blowing out with everything he can muster, producing sounds that are alternately sweet and melodic, then harsh and atonal.

He’s playing as a quartet here, and perhaps it’s this as much as his sound and style here, but I’m very much reminded of John Coltrane’s classic 1960’s quartet. The rhythm section plays in a style very similar to that well-regarded combo. The piano accompaniment is spare; the bass ties everything down while fully exploring the harmonic possibilities of the tune, and the drums… Well, much could be said about the drums on this track. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a drummer keep a sense of forward propulsion while exploring his kit in quite so flamboyant a manner. Yes, it’s all in tempo, but every bar is different rhythmically. You might say that could be too much, and overwhelm the soloist, but Shepp responds with more invention of his own, and the two create a positive spiral which leads the listener to a peak of enjoyment. This tenor/drums interplay, that makes this disc such an exciting listen, is another aspect that reminds me of Coltrane – I’m thinking, of course, of the 60’s quartet again and the wonderful support Trane received from the great Elvin Jones. It’s often been said that Archie owed a great deal to John Coltrane, and I do wonder if he was conscious of this in his choice of a quartet for this date – surely he must have been to choose a tune like ‘Giant Steps’.

After 16 minutes (what energy Shepp has, playing at the relentless tempo of this piece for such a time), Shepp lays out and lets the pianist have a say. The piano playing, whilst supportive to Shepp (although the drummer steals the show, as far as the sidemen go, as mentioned above), is less good solo. The playing is interesting, and has some interesting sounding moments, with dissonancies and a little atonality, but doesn’t really sound like it’s connected to the rest of the band somehow, a fact picked up on by Shepp who returns a few minutes later (after turning the record over – a masterstroke of timing – if it had to be turned over at all, in the middle of that piano solo was the place to do it) and has to fight with the piano for a short time before it gets back to it’s subservient role. The sax, after it’s short break gives us more of the same – short lyrical bursts of the theme in typical hard bop fashion combined with moments of free expression and supporting drumming of great excitement.
With such excitement being generated by the drummer, it comes as no surprise that his solo, about 5 ½ minutes into the second part, is outstanding. It never ceases to amaze me how these drummers can simultaneously keep time but yet explore the outer reaches of their kit. I’m also continually amazed at how many sounds they can produce from only a few drums.

The tune soon ends, but there’s no respite as the band launch straight into ‘Giant Steps’, taken a shade faster than the Coltrane original. As soon as the tenor starts to solo, you know you’re dealing with Coltrane’s sonic heir. It may as well be JC playing, such is the speed and precision of what’s being put down here. The fine interplay between sax and drums is evident again here, with solid support from the bass. Once again, though, the piano lets the side down, though you do tend to ignore it and focus on the swirling horn lines when you’re listening. And on they go, swirling, darting and diving all over the map, with occasional breaths for air in the form of a statement of the theme.

Then, when you didn’t think it could get any better… the piano solo here is simply a work of genius. What this pianist was doing the rest of the time I have no idea, but here he plays with great invention and is both adventurous and controlled in his harmonics at the same time. The track soon winds up, though not until Archie and the drummer get to trade lines in a thrilling face-off of the albums’ two outstanding players.

I presume there’s a volume 2 of this release – but where to find it I have no idea. In the 5 years I’ve owned this LP I’ve yet to come across it’s twin. It’s on an obscure, presumably French label, it may even be a bootleg (the excellent sound quality rather mitigates against that). Maybe someday… and if anyone has any information they could share about this pair of recordings, then please leave a comment.

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