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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

ARCHIE SHEPP I Know About the Life

Sackville 3026 (1981)

I Know About the Life was recorded during the filming of Ron Mann's excellent documentary Imagine the Sound (cruelly unavailable on DVD); in the film, Shepp is shown playing in the studio and being interviewed by Sackville Records co-founder/CODA magazine co-founder/Canadian renaissance man Bill Smith. The tone of the interviews is relaxed and intimate, yet serious and focused, just like the music on this record.

Shepp's boozy, Ben Webster-ish tone suits the laid back feel of the title track, which is the only original Shepp composition on the album. Pianist Ken Werner contributes elegant comping while bassist Santi DeBriano and drummer John Betsch sound like a one-man rhythm section, so focused and synchronized is their accompaniment. My only caveat involves what seem to be some tuning problems on Shepp's part that plague the recording and make his playing sound a little more off-kilter than usual. That's not meant to put down his playing; Shepp has always had a distinctive, freewheeling quality to his style that always seems to suit the material (his unique rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" is a modern jazz classic).

Shepp pays tribute to his mentor John Coltrane on "Giant Steps"; here the tuning is even more suspect, and Shepp can't navigate the sharp harmonic turns quite as effortlessly as Trane did in the original, yet the rhythm section cooks, and Shepp's soloing is passionate and heartfelt. Near the end, there's a particularly wonderful "duel" between Shepp and Betsch that reminds one of Trane and Rashied Ali duking it out on Coltrane's Interstellar Space.

The album closes with a pair of Thelonious Monk compositions. "Round Midnight" is played straight by the rhythm section, with Shepp inserting honks and squeals that probably would never have occured to Monk sideman Charlie Rouse, and "Well You Needn't" ends the session on an upbeat note. Life may not be essential Shepp, but to his fans and followers, any Shepp is worth hearing. Make sure you beg or borrow (but don't steal) a copy of Imagine the Sound at some point in your life to catch a glimpse of this sometimes underappreciated modern jazz legend.


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