Saturday, July 30, 2011

Archie Shepp - For Losers/Kwanza (Impulse! 2011)

Though the two titles featured on this Impulse two-fer were originally issued four years apart, they were recorded pretty much at the same time. For Losers, released in 1970, reflects Archie Shepp's deep fascination with rhythm & blues and soul, as well as showing how vanguard jazz drew directly from the tradition. Produced by Ed Michel, this album (and Kwanza) features Shepp in the company of Grachan Moncur III, Jimmy Owens, Woody Shaw, Charles Davis, Dave Burrell, Cedar Walton, Andy Bey, Robin Kenyatta, Cecil Payne, James Spaulding, Wilbur Ware, Beaver Harris, Bernard Purdie, Joe Chambers, Leon Thomas, and Doris Troy, to name a few. It ranges from the funky stomp of "Stick 'Em Up" with Thomas up front and which draws equally on James Brown and Rufus Thomas, through to an avant version of Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," with Troy's vocal atop a warm but angular and elastic harmonic arrangement, to a nearly straight version of Cal Massey's classic ballad "What Would It Be Without You," with beautiful interplay between Shepp's tenor and Payne's flute. The entire second side is taken up by "Un Croque Monsieur (Poem: For Losers)," an outside jazz jam of epic proportions. Kwanza, though it was recorded at nearly the same time, was not released until 1974. Its cuts display the same lineups as those on For Losers. While on the surface it would seem to be a collection of outtakes and leftovers from the earlier album, it doesn't doesn't play like one. With Michel producing only one track, and the balance by Bob Thiele, it sounds more like a direct follow-up. Shepp composed three tunes here; two of which ("Back Back" and "Slow Drag," with killer trumpet work by Shaw) reflect the tough, nasty soul and rhythm & blues foundations of the earlier album, while the other, "Spoo Pee Doo," while brief, is a curiously strange midtempo jazz ballad sung by Thomas. Moncur's modally based free workout "New Africa" appears as the set's longest and most satisfying number, with another Massey number, "Makai," which has its repetitive, labyrinthine counterpoint played to the hilt by Shepp and bassist Walter Booker. Together, For Losers and Kwanza are hotly debated but essential parts of the Shepp Impulse discography; they embody not merely the paradoxes of his vision, but the enormity of it.