cecil taylor | archie shepp performance of march 23-28, 1976 at keystone korner, san francisco


PERFORMANCE OF MARCH 23-28, 1976 at Keystone Korner, San Francisco

SHEPP’S GROUP: Archie Shepp / tenor & soprano saxophones, Dave Burrell / piano, Charles Greenlee / trombone, Cameron Brown / bass, Beaver Harris / drums.


TAYLOR’S GROUP: Cecil Taylor / piano, Jimmy Lyons / alto saxophone, David Ware / tenor saxophone, Raphe Malik / trumpet, Marc Edwards / drums.

A decade ago, a pairing of Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor on the same musical bill would have been an event of major significance. But while Taylor’s music continues to encompass the universe, Shepp has retreated into a narrow eclecticism. Free music for Shepp (when he actually plays freely) has ceased to be exploration but has become merely a style among other styles. This would not in itself be so bad, for Shepp sees himself as something of a black classicist, one who plays the music, traditional and modern, of black people.

But, though he played more here than we have heard from him on any of his recent LPs, his playing lacked imagination, and the rhythmic contexts in which the music was generally set would have been boring thirty years ago. Dave Burrell’s playing (which often consisted of the repetition of one or two chords) was all but superfluous, and Beaver Harris’ talents were wasted on largely metronomic accompaniments. Only on ballads such as “Lush Life” or others was Shepp himself consistently interesting, or at least interesting enough to remind the listener that he was once a major musical innovator.

Probably the experience of hearing Archie Shepp would not have been so incredibly frustrating had it not been for the presence of Cecil Taylor. For the deep emotional stirrings conjured up by Taylor might have rendered any other music irrelevant. On opening night, an hour-and-a-half presentation built around the three horns reached such high-pitched levels of screamed intensity that the Keystone seemed transformed into a place of ritual, of spiritual enlightenment even. I myself felt an almost transcendent rapport with the entire audience, something I have not felt when hearing any other music.

Yet in certain respects this was less compressed, more “obvious” music than that of the Taylor trio. It was more dramatic structurally, but at its best avoided the pitfalls of mere drama, moving unassumingly and with purpose through its various sections – from tension to release and back again. The horns built from high and low-pitched stuttered motifs into their soloist jaunts. One noticed especially the extent to which Jimmy Lyons has entered so thoroughly into Taylor’s music. For while Ware’s and Malik’s solos built around and through Taylor’s rhythmical probings, Lyons’ offerings meshed with them, “swung” with them, explored their more immediately apparent implications.

Ware is a player who is busy working with the legacy left by Albert Ayler, and his statements quickly emerged as shrill flights of frenzy, working and re-working the farthest reaches of the tenor’s range. Malik, meanwhile, is one of the hardest blowing trumpeters I’ve heard, though his lines tend to build more on top of each other than moving straight ahead. His work seems to make greater sense when perceived in retrospect than at any given moment. One could not help but miss the presence of Andrew Cyrille, but Marc Edwards provided a good deal of energy and momentum, if not Cyrille’s easily intense looseness.

Taylor himself, though, was the music’s own inner being – even if he was somewhat less in the forefront of it all than usual. He was the focal point around which it all revolved, and its (harmonic/rhythmic) connection to realms beyond. And in an era when many artists have ceased exploration altogether, Taylor’s openness to growth and his willingness to give of himself so fully at every performance must itself be singled out for praise – at least as much so as the music which, as always, was exceptional.

Henry Kuntz, 1976


Cecil Taylor biography:

Cecil Percival Taylor (born March 15 or March 25, 1929 in New York City) is an American pianist and poet. Along with Ornette Coleman, he is now generally acknowledged to be one of the innovators of free jazz.

Taylor’s first recording, Jazz Advance, was released in 1956, and is described by Cook & Morton in the Penguin Guide to Jazz: “While there are still many nods to conventional post-bop form in this set, it already points to the freedoms which the pianist would later immerse himself in.”

Taylor is known for being an extremely energetic, physical yet subtle player, producing exceedingly complex improvised sounds, frequently involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. At first listen, his dense and percussive music can be difficult to absorb, often described as if playing “88 tuned drums.” He learned piano at six and went on to study at New York College of Music and New England Conservatory. After first steps in R&B and swing-styled small groups in the early 1950s, he formed his own band with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1956. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it was often difficult to find work, despite landmark recordings such as Unit Structures, Nefertiti the Beautiful One Has Come, and a pairing with John Coltrane (Coltrane Time/Hard Drivin’ Jazz).

Taylor played and recorded predominantly with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons from 1961 until Lyons’s death in 1986, along with drummers Sunny Murray and later Andrew Cyrille. Within that group, known as “The Unit”, the musicians developed often volcanic new forms of conversational interplay.

From the early 1970s onwards, Taylor began to perform solo concerts, some of which were released as the Indent and Silent Tongues albums. He began to garner critical, if not popular, acclaim, playing for Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn, lecturing as an in-residence artist at universities, and eventually being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1973 and then a MacArthur Fellowship in 1991.

Following Lyons’s death, Taylor has played in a variety of settings ranging from solo (e.g. For Olim, Garden, Erzulie Maketh Scent, The Tree of Life, and In Willisau), the “Feel Trio” formed in the early 1990s with William Parker (bass) and Tony Oxley (drums) (Celebrated Blazons, Looking (The Feel Trio), and the 10-CD set 2 T’s for a Lovely T) as well as larger ensembles and big-band projects. His extended residence in Berlin in 1988 was extensively documented by the German label FMP, resulting in a massive boxed set of performances in duet and trio with a who’s who of European free improvisors, including Oxley, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Han Bennink, Tristan Honsinger, Louis Moholo, Paul Lovens, and others. Most of his recordings for the past several decades have been put out on European labels, with the exception of the unexpected release of Momentum Space (a meeting with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones) on Verve/Gitanes. The classical label Bridge recently released his 1998 Library of Congress performance Algonquin, a duet with violinist Mat Maneri. Few recordings from 2000 have yet been published, though Taylor, now in his seventies, continues to captivate audiences around the world with live concerts, usually played on his favored instrument, the Bösendorfer piano that features 9 extra lower register keys. A documentary spotlighting the enigmatic musician, All the Notes, was released on DVD in 2006 by director Chris Felver.

In addition to piano, Taylor has always been interested in ballet and dance. His mother, who died while he was still young, was a dancer and also played the piano and violin. Taylor once said: “I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes”. He collaborated with dancer Dianne McIntyre in 1977 and 1979. In 1979 he also composed and played the music for a twelve-minute ballet “Tetra Stomp: Eatin’ Rain in Space”, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Heather Watts.

Taylor is also an accomplished poet, citing Robert Duncan, Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka as major influences. He often integrates his poems into his musical performances, and they frequently appear in the liner notes of his albums. The CD Chinampas, released by Leo Records in 1987, is a recording of Taylor reciting several of his poems unaccompanied.

Taylor is featured in the 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound, in which he discusses and performs his music, poetry and dance.


Archie Shepp biography:

Archie Shepp is an American jazz saxophonist.

Shepp was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on May 24, 1937, but raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he studied piano, clarinet and alto saxophone before focusing on tenor saxophone (he occasionally plays soprano saxophone). He is best known for his passionately Afrocentric music of the late sixties which focused on highlighting the injustices faced by the African race, as well as for his work with the New York Contemporary Five and his collaborations with his “New Thing” contemporaries, most notably Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane.

Shepp studied drama at Goddard College from 1955 to 1959, but after a lack of success in securing acting jobs after moving to New York, he turned to music professionally. He played in a Latin jazz band for a short time before joining the band of avantgarde pianist Cecil Taylor, who at that time was just beginning to blossom from merely a very eccentric Thelonious Monk-influenced young upstart into one of the most important and controversial figures of the 1960s avantgarde. Shepp appeared on Air, The World Of Cecil Taylor and Cell Walk For Celeste, all of which remain defining Taylor recordings. His first notable forays into recording under his own name came with the New York Contemporary Five band, which included Don Cherry. John Coltrane’s admiration led to recordings for Impulse!, the first of which was Four for Trane, on which he was sided by his long-time friend, trombonist Roswell Rudd.

Shepp participated in the sessions for Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in early 1965 but none of the takes he participated in were included on the final LP release (they were made available for the first time on a 2002 reissue). However, Shepp then cut the massively influential and extremely avantgarde Ascension with Coltrane in 1965, and his place alongside Trane at the forefront of the avantgarde scene was epitomized when the pair split a record (the first side a Coltrane set, the second a Shepp set) entitled New Thing At Newport released in late 1965. Some critics felt Shepp was rather too heavily influenced by Coltrane, though Trane’s influence at the time was so vast that nearly every saxophonist who was attaining stardom at the time was on the receiving end of this criticism at one point in their careers (most notably Wayne Shorter).

1965 also saw the release of the Fire Music LP which included the first signs of Shepp’s increasingly prominent Afrocentricity: it included the reading of an elegy for Malcolm X, and the title is derived from a ceremonial African music tradition. It also saw Shepp pushing the boundaries of jazz but remaining somewhat tethered to bebop traditions, as the saxophonist performed bizarre readings of standards “Prelude To A Kiss” and “The Girl From Ipanema”. The Magic Of Ju-Ju in 1967 also took its name from African musical traditions and this time the music too dived headlong into the continent’s music itself, utilising a frenetic African percussion ensemble. At this time, many African-American jazzmen were becoming increasingly aware of Afrocentrism and the musical traditions of the African continent; along with Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp was at the forefront of this movement. The Magic Of Ju-Ju defined Shepp’s sound for the next few years – seemingly chaotic avantgarde sax lines coupled with the rhythms and ideologies of Africa. Shepp continued to experiment into the new decade, at various times including harmonica players and spoken word poets in his ensembles. Attica Blues and The Cry Of My People, meanwhile, from 1972 were Shepp’s angriest statements of black freedom yet.

In the late 1970s and beyond, Shepp’s career zigzagged between various old territories and various new territories. He continued to explore the music of Africa, while also recording tributes to more traditional jazz figures like Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet, dabbling in R&B, and recording with various European artists like Jasper Van’t Hof and Dresch Mihály. Since the early nineties he often plays with the French trumpet player Eric Le Lann with whom he recorded the album Live in Paris in 1995.

Shepp has also returned to his first love, drama, at various times in his career – his works include The Communist (1965) and Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy (1972).

From the 1970s to the early 2000s Archie Shepp was a professor in the African-American Studies department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught both music and music history. Shepp is featured in the 1981 documentary film Imagine the Sound, in which he discusses and performs his music and poetry.


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