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Recordings only tell part of the story. Often, the events at the core of a narrative occur between entries in the discographies. Two are crucial to Shepp’s transformation from firebrand to flame-keeper, shedding light on his overhauled sound and an unlikely key collaborator.

In 1972, a badly split lip required Shepp to undergo plastic surgery. “It completely changed my embouchure,” Shepp reflected in 2016. “I changed from a classical embouchure to a double lip embouchure, which gives you a bigger sound, but it’s more difficult to control. But, everything came together with time. Usually, it’s the teeth that cause embouchure problems – Coltrane and Sonny Rollins had embouchure problems because of their teeth. But, it was the lip in my case, so I used a double lip embouchure in which you just use the jaw, tongue and lips, and not your teeth. Your teeth can reduce your volume.

“Focusing all my attention on my new embouchure caused other problems at first. Sometimes, I’d lose track of the 1. For me, the first beat is the strongest – it’s where everything starts. I got a lot of that from listening to Ben Webster, Herschel Evans and Lester Young. Once, I got lost in song at a jam session with Stan Getz, Illinois Jacquet and Eddie Davis. We were playing ‘Oleo’ very fast and I couldn’t get it right. When I complained about how I played to Eddie Davis, he looked at me and said, ‘Your problem was that you couldn’t find the 1.’ That stuck.”

Shepp refined his now sound by playing standards with Charles Majid Greenlee. The Detroit-raised trombonist was a decade older than Shepp; before he was out of his teens, Greenlee had worked not only with Lucky Millinder’s and Benny Carter’s big bands, but with the fabled 1946 edition of Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. Greenlee also led local groups that included saxophonist Frank Foster and pianist Tommy Flanagan, who became leading exponents of the hard-swinging Detroit jazz of the ‘50s. By the time Greenlee began shedding with Shepp, he had worked with everyone from ethnomusicological pioneer Yusef Lateef and pyrotechnical trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. “I learned a lot about swinging from playing inside with Majid,” Shepp admitted. “I also started to write more within traditional parameters. I learned a lot about playing inside with Majid because his solos had a feeling that went back to the beginning of bebop. You could compare him to J.J. [Johnson] but Majid had a heavy original sound. His ideas were very hip – ‘hip’ meaning original and swinging. And he always put the phrase where it needed to be.”

Shepp was also drawn to Greenlee because of the trombonist’s relationship to Coltrane. “I was on a mission to connect with those who knew John Coltrane,” explained Shepp. “I was impressed by his connection to Coltrane through his very long relationship to Coltrane’s cousin Mary [Alexander]. He was also Coltrane’s roommate sometimes when they went on the road with Dizzy’s orchestra [in the early ‘50s]. As you probably know, John practiced assiduously. One night, before Majid went to bed, Coltrane was working on a figure. Majid went to sleep, and when he woke up in the morning, Coltrane was still working on it.” Coltrane often visited Mary and Majid in the late 1950s and early ‘60s when they lived – along with other musicians, including Eric Dolphy – in the Brooklyn brownstone owned by trombonist Slide Hampton. Dolphy commemorated the conviviality of the housemates and their friends with “245,” named for the brownstone’s address on Carlton Avenue. Dolphy included both “245” and Greenlee’s ebullient “Miss Toni” on Outward Bound, his 1960 debut as a leader.

By the mid-‘70s, trombones had been a fixture in the front line of Shepp’s groups for a decade. Of the baker’s dozen Shepp albums released on Impulse, only one – On This Night from ‘65 – did not include a trombone in the ensemble, the chair usually filled by Roswell Rudd or Grachan Moncur III (Shepp had both in the band when he played the rarified Donaueschingen Musiktage in ‘67). Stylistically, Greenlee was a departure for Shepp. Greenlee did not have Rudd’s garrulity, one steeped in Dixieland and an early ‘60s immersion in Monk in tandem with Steve Lacy; nor did he have Moncur’s fluidity in mixing bop, hard bop and free jazz flourishes. Greenlee painstakingly avoided sub-genre gene-splicing and border-jumping gymnastics, yet his playing was far from generic. Greenlee was hip, which on any given day in jazz history, is more than enough.

By late ‘74, when Shepp brought a quintet including Greenlee during Charlie Parker month at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago – which Down Beat reviewer Gordon Kopulus likened to “a short course in the history of Black American Music” – the saxophonist was no longer the dashiki-cloaked, skull-capped radical, but “An Old Schoolmaster in Brown Suit,” to quote the headline of a John Litweiler-penned Down Beat feature. In an extensive interview taken during the Jazz Showcase stand, Shepp detailed his traditionalism by initially suggesting music is “like a dictionary that has a lot of words, but if you limit yourself to a couple of definitions you would be illiterate. If one limits oneself to a peculiar definition like ‘new music’ or ‘avant-garde,’ something like that, I think it’s like cutting out half the dictionary.”

Responding to a Lester Young quote bemoaning the dominance of “copycats” on the scene, Shepp pointed out that “it’s impossible for a major force in a creative field not to influence people. That’s the nature of the artistic process itself.” In discussing Coltrane’s influence on him, Shepp was quick to say that “Mr. Coltrane was not only a major influence on my music, but a man who helped and inspired me, and who still does, in many ways. Though I don’t usually talk about influences in that narrow sense of the term … because I could talk about Benny Golson or Lucky Thompson or Jimmy Oliver … words don’t really explain the feeling I have for John Coltrane and the things I feel he helped me understand. Musically and personally, I don’t dissociate the two. I think psychological phenomena and aesthetic phenomena are very interwoven.”

Litweiler found it “striking that Archie singled out Golson and Thompson … Regular features of [Shepp’s] soloing accent the ‘strong’ beats, one and three, and the ingenious dynamic and sonoric effects in the manner of the Golson-Thompson-Byas-Webster tradition, as well as the saxophone stylists of the ‘60s [Litweiler’s italics]. This tenor saxophone tradition has been partly traced to the influence of altoist Johnny Hodges, who in turned maintained that his style was based on that of soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, one of the New Orleans originals. So in that sense Shepp is a late-blooming step in a half-century-old saxophone tradition, what he himself would call an ‘archivist.’”

Archivists do not simply amass, index and file materials – they animate them by giving them context. Many musicians who were in the thick of the jazz revolution in the ‘60s gave the archive that is the tradition a post-revolutionary context in the 1970s, the rediscovery of Monk being a case in point; but, Shepp had the advantage of having a ten-year head start of developing an approach that was both encyclopedic and highly personal. To this end, his new, burnished sound was critical. So too were his collaborators. By the time of the Jazz Showcase stand, two members of the quintet that performed at Montreux were in place – Greenlee and Dave Burrell.

Greenlee and Burrell participated in Shepp’s next album-length work, There’s a Trumpet in My Soul, his most stereotype-busting recording since waxing “The Girl from Ipanema” for Fire Music. Far from the socio-political statements Shepp made with albums like Attica Blues and The Cry of My People, it is something akin to a divertimento, as it includes ample portions of sensuous Brazilian-tinged melodies and robustly swinging blowing. It is also more an assemblage than a suite, even though Greenlee’s jabbing “Zaid” emerges from the cross fades on both sides of the LP. Yet, for those that hadn’t noticed that Shepp had left the ramparts, repairing to the cloistered environs of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where Semenya McCord, who sings the graceful title piece, was his student), Trumpet was a confounding album. “It was never intended to be ambitious in terms of message or organization like Attica Blues or The Cry of My People,” Shepp explained. “It was always conceived as a small ensemble project. I wanted it to be relaxed and allow us to think of solos on their own terms, instead of fitting into an arrangement.”

Still, critics struggled with the album, Howard Mandel’s lukewarm Down Beat review being representative. Mandel’s take on the album is largely driven by his “suspicion of tampering” by, presumably, producer Michael Cuscuna; prompted by everything from the album’s “echoing acoustics,” a “wash of sound,” to the speculation that a Greenlee solo on “Zaid” unjustly ended up on the cutting room floor, Mandel concludes that “Shepp himself is here, somewhere.” This begs the question of who Mandel thought Shepp was. One clue to an answer is Mandel’s reflexive comparison of “Zaid” to Shepp’s “Doraueschingen concerts of ‘67” [sic] as “wooly, reed-splintering, raw and howling jazz.” Mandel’s recollection of the Donaueschingen Musiktage concert was patchy, as the performance was shaped by a smoldering “The Shadow of Your Smile” as much as its high-energy components, yielding a panorama generally similar to that of Trumpet. In fact, Shepp was still the artist he always had been; only the misconceptions about him had changed. In a last paragraph in which he heaps accolades on Shepp to soften the bottom line that the album “is neither his most accessible nor his most successful,” Mandel stumbled into prescience when he suggested that Shepp “may inform the jazz of the ‘70s as [he] reformed the music of the ‘60s.”


Great and near-great jazz groups can be viewed as a set of complementary relationships, even when the artistic agendas vary as widely as, say, those of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis’ quintet of the mid-‘60s. Egalitarianism is not necessarily the goal. Milt Jackson’s blues and bebop-steeped sensibility was routinely subordinated by John Lewis’ classical predilections, and Miles indelibly stamped Wayne Shorter compositions like “Footprints.” Even though both groups projected a leader’s vision, those visions were predicated on each musician not just bringing an individualistic voice that played an essential role in creating an ensemble sound – be it the impeccable understatement of MJQ bassist Percy Heath or the space-creating comping of Herbie Hancock – but one that played off the others, Tony Williams’ frequent and perfectly timed firecracker chucking being exemplary.

Much the same can be said about the quintet Shepp took to Europe in 1975. Kopulus’ observations that the trombonist’s “full tone counterpoints effectively with Shepp’s loose voicings” and that Burrell “is more tastefully economical than most contemporary pianists” are pertinent, particularly in regard to the latter. Although Burrell could pummel the keyboard with the best of the avant-garde pianists, he, like Shepp, had no aversion from taking on Bernstein’s West Side Story in the early ‘60s, and his affinity for rags, mainstreamers like Teddy Wilson, and the more songful modernists like Tadd Dameron, put considerable daylight between him and his contemporaries. Subsequently, Burrell was – and remains – more persuasive when he capers through a solo, turning single-note figures inside out.

Beaver Harris had then worked with Shepp for almost a decade. A sampling of his half-dozen Shepp Impulse dates as well as the Donaueschingen performance reveals a drummer who can play anything, turn on a dime, and drive a band with efficient fire. However, while he worked well with esteemed bassists like Jimmy Garrison, Charlie Haden and Reggie Workman in various Shepp-led ensembles, Harris took it up a notch when teamed with Cameron Brown. Brown was an exchange student in Germany in 1965 when he was hired by George Russell, who was then a year into what became a five-year residency in Scandinavia. While Brown more than acquitted himself on the pianist-composer’s Live at Beethoven Hall – the most far-reaching explication of his Lydian chromatic concept of tonality to date – the bassist returned to New York, not to gig, but to complete his degree studies. It is only shortly before being recruited by Shepp that Brown began playing regularly in New York, and started an enduring partnership with singer Sheila Jordan; quickly proving himself to be a responsive ensemble player and a forceful soloist, Brown promised to be the perfect linchpin in Shepp’s rhythm section.

There was no one composition in Shepp’s quintet’s book in the summer of 1975 that was particularly daunting – no lengthy scores necessitating a page-turner for Burrell; no multi-sectioned pieces that required more than a nod from Shepp for cueing purposes; and no metric modulations or odd structures that can act like speed bumps for a group shifting into high gear. In the aggregate, however, Shepp’s book was demanding in that it required finely calibrated projections of emotions spanning melancholy to insouciance, and a fine, if not granular knowledge of a given composition’s place in – or relationship to – a history then ripe for revision.

When looking at the compositions Shepp’s quintet performed at Montreux on July 18th, two things stand out. There are no Great American Songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter et al, primary sources for the nostalgia that stunted the progressive potential of the new jazz traditionalism. And, there is parity between the genres and sub-genres represented by Shepp’s set list, one free of the hegemonic impulses and tokenism of the neo-conservatives. This was a moment when the tradition represented what was possible, not what was doctrinally required. And Shepp seized it.

Michael Cuscuna was at the festival to record Shepp and Anthony Braxton’s quartet. Sitting together in the Montreux casino for Shepp’s performance, the producer’s jaw dropped when Shepp launched into Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” a piece the multi-instrumentalist had recorded the previous year for the seminal In the Tradition date. The differences between Shepp’s and Braxton’s respective approaches extend far beyond the differences between tenor and alto saxophones. There is much to commend in Braxton’s version – he pushes the tempo, his attack underscores the emotional impetus of the composition, and his joy of playing with tenor titan Dexter Gordon’s rhythm section (pianist Tete Montoliu, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath) is palpable. However, Braxton is obviously working hard to make his vocabulary fit the material and to keep pace with one of the exacting rhythm sections of the decade.

Shepp, on the other hand, projects effortlessness on the version that opens Montreux One. His new embouchure is crucial to his startling unaccompanied introduction, as it enables him to maintain a feathered tone while spooling out serpentine lines. It is the perfect excerpt to snare someone in a “blindfold test” because of its absence of telltale traits – exclamatory spikes, the snarls and growls that prompts comparisons to Hawkins and Webster, and his singular strained cry. Instead, Shepp runs through the registers of his tenor, supplely turning phrases and letting his sound shoulder the solo’s forward momentum. Even his cueing the band’s entry has a deft touch, elevating functionality to elegance. Once the rhythm section enters, nudging the tempo to a slow stroll, Shepp begins to sift in signature timbres and parenthetical vocalizations; but the overall impression he makes with “Lush Life” is one of mastery, epitomizing Shepp’s transformation from avant-gardist to traditionalist, prompting Braxton to say to Cuscuna: “You are capturing the greatest Archie Shepp performance I’ve ever heard.”

Some wily artists will play a ballad as an encore to satiate a frenzied crowd; but Shepp turned the tactic inside out, using “Lush Life” to animate the audience at Montreux. A strong, uplifting follow-up was indicated, and Shepp complied with “U-jamma.” It is an alluring fragmentary theme, with fanfare-like opening phrases spliced to a syncopated phrase that suddenly stops to set up a jaunty turnaround. Given the abrupt changes in rhythmic feel and its borderline inchoate middle segment, Shepp’s quintet impressively joins the fragments with a boisterous, athletic energy. Some jazz tunes are rightly likened to sprints – “U-jamaa” is more like running hurdles, since there are only a few strides between jumps. This suited Shepp and Greenlee well, as each edge created by the components of the theme gave them constant opportunities to build or release tension in their respective solos. Paired with “Lush Life,” “U-jamaa” supports Shepp’s assessment of Greenlee’s phrasing, as he plops well-rounded phrases into the respective grooves created by Burrell, Brown, and Harris, while avoiding both overly broad and blustery clichés, and the formality associated with Johnson.

As LP sides go, it is a toss-up as to whether the A of B side of Montreux One is the stronger. Opening the B side, Burrell’s “Crucificado” is another exhibit in the long case against pigeonholing the pianist as an avant-gardist. Employing a languid tempo and a Latin tinge, Burrell repeats a yearning phrase, then grinds it gently against resolution-seeking chords, and finally stretches it, ending the theme with a sigh and an embrace. Both Shepp and Greenlee solo with the finesse and seductive air that the piece requires, albeit through different means to project contrasting emotions. While Shepp’s breath-drenched timbre and plaintive attack approximates the hoarseness and exhaustion of someone who can’t quit proclaiming their love, Greenlee’s bel canto tone and lyricism exudes confidence. When they rejoin for the concluding ensemble, they blend beautifully – easily the best example of their milking a romantic theme.

Montreux One ends with “Miss Toni,” in which start-stop descending triads limning the chord changes suddenly soar for a few bars, then stop and start again, ending with an ascending triad. The feel is markedly different than the Dolphy version. The swing of the earlier version was sufficiently light enough for composer-woodwinds player Bill Kirchner to opine, in his annotations for the box set of Dolphy’s Prestige recordings, that the composition “would not have been inappropriate for Chet Baker.” The differences between the two versions are rooted in the respective rhythm sections. The pianist on Dolphy’s date is Jaki Byard, a bandmate in Charles Mingus’ great 1964 sextet, an ensemble renowned for amplifying the shape-shifting permeating the bassist’s compositions. Byard brought none of the eruptive force of his work with Mingus to the Dolphy session; teamed with yeoman bassist George Tucker and veteran drummer Roy Haynes, they deliver a clean-burning, unprovocative swing. Dolphy mostly chortles on bass clarinet, cawing sparingly, while trumpeter Freddie Hubbard is at his sleekest.

Subsequently, “Miss Toni” was a smart choice to end the album, a swinger close enough to the mainstream to raise doubts that Dolphy was far out enough to be anti-jazz. A year before his Village Vanguard recordings with Coltrane branded him as an avant-gardist, Dolphy was most widely known for his work with drummer Chico Hamilton, the progenitor of West Coast chamber jazz; Outward Bound established Dolphy as a New York presence, vouched safe on tunes like “Miss Toni” by the credentialed Byard, Tucker and Haynes. The two recordings form historical bookends, as Dolphy’s recording takes place at the dawn of revolution; Shepp’s long after the last shots are fired.

This historical relationship is reflected through the propulsion provided by Burrell, Brown and Harris. Unlike Tucker, a bassist more felt than heard on most of his recordings, Brown was representative of an increasing number of bass players whose discontent with the staid role of outlining chord changes with the rhythmic flexibility of a metronome led to a more filigreed, figure-based approach, which frequently, if only momentarily in most instances, made Brown a contrapuntal foil for the horns, as well as a formidable soloist. Much the same can be said of Harris, whose use of accents and cross rhythms changed the inflection of the groove much more than Haynes did on the Dolphy version. But, it is Burrell that is the wild card, as he provides skeletal accompaniment for a gleeful Greenlee solo and Shepp’s roistering choruses; Burrell then solos with an economy and a focus on motivic development that prompts comparisons with Mal Waldron. Together, Shepp’s rhythm section is perfectly matched for the leader’s agenda, encapsulated in his approach to “Miss Toni:” Instead of keeping one foot in the mainstream while leaning into jazz’s new frontier like Dolphy, Shepp was looking over his shoulder at jazz’s recent past as he plowed ahead.

Ordinarily, sequels pale; not so with Montreux Two, documenting the remainder of Shepp’s performance. As was the case with its companion volume, Shepp commenced the second album with a slower-paced, ruminative composition – “Steam,” a staple of his performances and recordings throughout the ‘70s. As is the case with other recordings of the tune, Shepp’s soprano is as gritty as his tenor in his most Websterish moments, scuffing and scoring the long lilting lines mid-tempo jazz waltzes tend to inspire. The melancholy of “Steam” does not reach the summit on which “Lush Life” is perched, but it is within striking distance. Of everything Shepp has composed, “Steam” stands the best chance of becoming a perennial.

Shepp’s mention of Benny Golson to Litweiler was no reflexive name check, as evidenced by Shepp’s reading of Golson’s “Along Came Betty.” While it doesn’t have the hammered 1 of “Killer Joe,” Golson’s best-known tune, “Along Came Betty” is a good example of how Golson emphasized the strong beats in his writing as well as his playing, and how Shepp uses the 1 to evoke various aspects of the tenor tradition, be it the stomping groove associated with Hawkins or the streaming lines that marked Coltrane’s early work. There’s a leave-it-all-on-the-bandstand drive to the quintet’s performance, one that signals finale, with each musician soloing fervently. However, Shepp is far from done, as he calls Moncur’s “Blues for Donald Duck” at a brutally fast tempo. For the first half of the quarter-hour performance, Burrell, Brown and Harris are essentially soloing – prompting Shepp to revisit his mid-’60s vocabulary – before reassuming conventional rhythm section roles, albeit at the same pace, for Greenlee’s solo. The trombonist pushes his bop vocabulary to the brink of disintegration, but has the wherewithal to puckishly quote Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” before the piece ends in a blaze of glory.


In his interview with Litweiler, Shepp illustrated his use of “archivist:” “If we look at James Brown’s music in a technical sense, which involves the use of primary African musical innovations including call-and-response, his use of polyrhythms, which is ingenious, his thematic development, and his so-called ‘use of repetition,’ I think Mr. Brown is an archivist.” If an archivist is someone who not only compiles history, but dispenses that history in contemporary terms, then Shepp too is an archivist. By this standard, playing Strayhorn and Golson compositions in and of themselves does not clear the archivist bar. The archivist presents these compositions as primary musical innovations and builds upon in such a way to encourage ongoing reinterpretation; in doing so, he prevents these compositions from becoming inert.

The archivist therefore has a crucial role in the cultural project of sustaining jazz as living history, a project that gained increased traction with public and philanthropic institutions throughout the 1970s. However, the symbiotic tension in the phrase “living history” and the need to actively keep the “living” in balance with the “history” was rarely recognized then – or now. Without that balance, art quickly becomes artifact. However, historicizing jazz was then and remains a powerful tool for promoting the music in both commercial and institutional arenas in the US. One of the auxiliary processes of historicizing jazz was the establishment of a canon of compositions and recordings. Once enshrined, a composition like “Lush Life” can no longer be the primary musical innovation used by Shepp at Montreux to project a larger progressive perspective; they become litmus tests of adherence to the doctrine that created the canon.

The tradition had yet to be set in concrete in mid-‘70s, a time of increasing dependency of archivists like Shepp on the European market. Subsequently, successfully branded festivals like Montreux played a substantive role in the projection of a traditionalism that sought balance between the opposing forces embedded in the idea of living history. It was a moment when the tradition, arguably, had more vitality than it would for years, even decades to come. Montreux One and Two are touchstones of that moment.

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