Good Music We Can Know

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Genius of Free Jazz: Archie Shepp- Coral Rock (1970)

Archie Shepp: this man is certifiably awesome and as unpredictable and radical as a napalm strike on a haiku library. More on the man with the machine gun sax in another post but damn damn let's talk about this fine album: CORAL ROCK. This swamp monster behemoth of a session is the top selection of a large body of vibrant records he made during a prolific and highly experimental African-influenced "free" period.
On the first (22 minute) track, his fiery chainsaw tenor marches into battle with Lester Bowie's rusty trumpet lines at his side, backed powerfully by the airless sludge surge of violins, flugelhorn, woozy trombone, Leon Thomas-style pygmy yodels, and Muhammad Ali's drums, propelled endlessly by a repeating bassline that's so thick and good... it's just, oh damn, it's so good. This track is a howling army of free jazz in the best sense, and it is epic. Honestly, one of my most listened to sessions, period. This type of jazz is hardly known for its replay value, but Coral Rock has a demented listenability and thoroughness of badassery to it that makes me play it all the time. Even in the car.

The second track is Shepp on piano insisting on his roots as a classicist, and it's pretty interesting in its off-kilter approach to the old standard. This is to be expected from Shepp's records at the time as he often included standards and covers as a counterpoint to the insanity of the improvised blowouts and as a showcase for his love of and familiarity with the history of jazz composition. It can be a pretty boring tendency from time to time, but the selection on this record is insistently strange, and by the time its 14 minute runtime is up, you'll be a believer. It is drunkenly soulful and it feels like a late night on a hot porch.
Coral Rock: a great place to begin investigating the brilliant work of Archie Shepp, but no place to stop.