The Fire This Time

Archie Shepp
Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival
BASF/MPS : 1972

AS, tenor sax; Grachan Moncur III, trombone; Roswell Rudd, trombone; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Beaver Harris, drums.

We had the liquor, the chicken, the music, and each other, and had no need to pretend to be what we were not. This is the freedom that one hears on some gospel songs and in jazz. In all jazz, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them — sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defenselessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line,” as the song puts it, know what this music is about.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 1963.

The Archie Shepp of the 1960s was one of the most galvanizing, socially aware of jazzmen. His politics and protest were manifest in his music, and the words that complemented it. He was also hugely aware of the tradition in which he operated, and three months after the death of John Coltrane, while appearing at the Donaueschingen festival in October, 1967, he gave voice to the sorrow, the sting, and the shock that accompanied Trane’s departure.

The track opens with a stirring, six-minute bass solo by former Trane sideman Jimmy Garrison. This is how Garrison opened many of Coltrane’s later gigs and here it’s both ritual and invocation. While we’re not usually clamoring to give the bassist some, we’ll sit on the edge of our seats for Jimmy’s solos anytime. This one is a particular doozy: The series of plucks and bows become a unified composition with their own pacing, logic, structure. The rattling percussion that accents his solo only underlines the sense of seance.

Note how the rest of the band enters with a flourish of symbols and trilling of horns. The unusual two trombone attack. The way Shepp’s sax cuts across everything else with its bluesy exhortations. The continual pound and flash of the cymbals. And also how Garrison fades deeper into the background after his marvellous solo.

This group was considered extreme at the time, but what’s most notable today is how they accentuate the lyrical and insist on playful interactions in the midst of aggressive blow-outs. Or as Gary Giddins put it: “they were never as scary as they thought we thought they were.” The tune peaks, writhes, frisks, groans, and saunters. It’s nuanced cacophony. A serious-as-your-life good time. (There is a good review of this album at this fine fan site, complete with cover images.)

Perhaps Shepp’s outspoken political views and Black Power stance helped brand his music as extreme. There’s still a lingering suspicion of art that includes politics and perhaps that taint clings to his reputation as a musician. But we’ll cede the last word on that rich topic:

Protest is an element of all art, though it does not necessarily take the form of speaking for a political or social program. It might appear in a novel as a technical assault against the styles which have gone before, or as protest against the human condition. If Invisible Man is even “apparently” free from “the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country,” it is because I tried to the best of my ability to transform these elements into art. My goal was not to escape, or hold back, but to work through; to transcend, as the blues transcend the painful conditions with which they deal. The protest is there, not because I was helpless before my racial condition, but because I put it there. If there is anything “miraculous” about the book it is the result of hard work undertaken in the belief that the work of art is important in itself, that it is a social action in itself.
Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug,” 1964.

Category Archie Shepp

4 Responses to The Fire This Time

  1. love this record.
    his entrance at the top of girl from impanema is one of my favorite moments in all of recorded jazz. intense, amusing, surprising, inventive, all at once.

  2. I managed to find this record on a blog a few months ago – certainly very fine. I’ve always found that, once you’ve heard one Garrison solo, you’ve kinda heard them all – though the one solo is very good! He is doing pretty much exactly the same thing he did with Trane here. Anyway…yes, I’ve been listening to a lot of Shepp recently – did an edition of my radio show on him, and was struck by the enormous variety of what he’s done. Not always succesful, and, I think, declining in quality as the years have gone by (though there are exceptions – those sublime duets with Horace Parlan for one), but the amount of good stuff on his albums is impressive. The ‘New Thing at Newport’ performance is just about perfect – wry, ironic, detached, engaged, passionate, cool, angry, lyrical, sophisticated.

  3. Funny, my first reaction to that bass solo was that it reminded me a lot of Charlie Haden’s in “Song For Che.”

  4. fantastic music!

    thanks for the blog!