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Articles - February, 16 1998

Saxophonist creates memorable event

Northampton, MA (USA) | Joyce Marcel - Daily Hampshire Gazette

"So many people were crammed into the Iron Horse that the musicians could barely make it to the stage."

World-renowned jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp can do it all: He sings, he plays piano, and most of all, he can still make amazing sounds come out of his horn.

When the dapper Shepp, 61, who makes the Amherst area his home, plays at the Iron Horse, as he did for two memorable hour-long sets on Friday night, it becomes an event with a capital E. So many people were crammed into the tiny club that the musicians could barely make it to the stage.

On stage, it got a little crowded too, as Shepp brought up friends from the area and New York to jam with him. The basic quartet for the evening consisted of Shepp, local pianist Tom McClung (saying a last good-bye before he leaves for Paris to play with drummer Stephen McCraven), McCraven himself, a loose, fast and amazingly subtle drummer, back for this special show, and Joe Fonda on bass.

Shepp, looking sharp in a brimmed hat and double-breasted suit, opened with one of his own pieces, the upbeat "Hope 2," written for Elmo Hope. He followed it with a beautiful, slow Billy Strayhorn blues, "My Little Brown Book," which he filled with striving and sadness on the sax and stylishly emotional singing that hit the highs and lows as fast and furiously as the horn, although the horn was breathy.

The exciting centerpiece of the first set was his "Mama Rose," written "for my grandmother in her coffin." It was a long poem that harked back to Shepp’s reputation in the ’60s for blazing anger in the face of American racial injustice. Although the words of the piece called for revolution, and were full of painful images like "putrefied Congolese after the Americans have come to help them," there was not so much sense of anger as a sense of laying down a big bright fact. Shepp was joined for the piece by Will Lettman on trumpet and Byard Lancaster, who made his flutes talk. Fonda had a look of ecstasy on his face.

Shepp followed it with a finger-snapping, swinging New Orleans style blues, sort of a sweet icing on the bitter cake.

After a half-hour break, the band came back with a slow be-bop number, and then were joined by smooth singer Djata Bumpus for mellow "Imagination."

A highlight of the second set was Jimi Hendrix’s "Red House," when Vishnu Wood took over on bass, bopping and dancing and playing the happiest music I’ve ever heard come out of that instrument. Shepp sang, played boogie piano and then a fast, hot sax.

Another highlight was the closer, a Shepp tune, "Dedication to Bessie Smith’s Blues," a hot up tempo number that carried the whole history of jazz within it. Both pieces managed to levitate the house, and those of us who were lucky enough to be there were thrilled.

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