Archie Shepp interview

The List / Stewart Smith

The legendary sax-man talks bagpipes, gospel and reggae before his Summerhall show.

Archie Shepp came to prominence in the mid-1960s as a leading light of the black avant-garde, playing with Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Don Cherry, among others. John Coltrane sponsored Shepp’s contract with Impulse! records and invited him to play on the monumental free-jazz blowout Ascension (1966). Shepp’s early albums as leader, such as Fire Music (1965) and Mama Too Tight (1966) established his approach, mixing raw expressions of political anger with catchy marching band tunes and detourned standards (his version of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ is one of the oddest you’ll hear). Reflecting his training in theatre (he is a published playwright), Shepp used recitations and poems over the music to make the social and political themes of his work explicit.

The late 60s and early 70s saw Shepp experimenting with African rhythms, resulting in an astonishing run of albums which are unique in their invention, strangeness and power. In its invocation of an underwater world, 1970’s Coral Rock bears comparison with Miles Davis’s Agharta or techno aquanauts Drexciya’s Neptune’s Lair. To the throb of a distant drum ritual, Shepp’s tenor flits shark-like between burbling gas jets of trombone, swaying fronds of arco bass and the alien architecture of Dave Burrell’s piano. Then there’s the incredible avant blues of Blasé, featuring Julio Finn’s gutsy harmonica and the great Jeanne Lee’s interpretations of Shepp’s poetry. The 1970s saw Shepp embrace funk, soul and more in an all-encompassing celebration of Black American music, leading to classics such as Attica Blues and Cries of My People. Since the 1980s Shepp has sought to integrate his innovations with a more traditional jazz approach, but he has always remained open to new challenges; recent years have seen him play the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti and work with rappers Chuck D and Napoleon Maddox.

This year’s Fringe sees Shepp contributing to Jean Pierre Muller’s 7 x 7 Street, a sound and art installation which also features music by Robert Wyatt, Nile Rodgers, Terry Riley, Mulatu Astatke, Kasin and Sean O’Hagan. To launch this project, Shepp will be performing a special duo set with pianist Tom McClung in the unusual setting of Summerhall’s former dissection lecture theatre.

‘Jean Pierre’s painting has a piece of music attached to it; the closer you get to the painting, the more present the music becomes,’ explains Shepp over the phone from Paris.

Robert Wyatt will be in attendance on the night and Shepp has been asked to play his contribution to 7×7. It’s not Shepp’s first encounter with Wyatt’s music. In 1982, Shepp played on a version of ‘Memories’, a song written by Hugh Hopper but popularised by Wyatt, with the young Whitney Houston as part of producer Bill Laswell’s Material project.

‘It’s a good song and Whitney really sings it beautifully with a lot of power of soul’ says Shepp. ‘I’ve not really heard much of Robert’s music, but we met recently, a couple of years ago, when we were both given honorary Bachelor degrees by the University of Liege. That’s when I first met him and I was really surprised to find that it was his music. But it’s a really nice song. The music I play normally is not so close to popular songs like ‘Memories’. I like that kind of music, but it’s not the kind of music I’m associated with’.

Shepp will soon be taking his Attica Blues Big Band out on tour in Europe. Playing in a piano duo at Summerhall must be very different kind of experience.

‘Duos are are never easy because I’m used to relying on the bass player and drummer to provide the element of swing,’ he explains. ‘You lose some of that when you don’t have a bass and a drum. It means that the piano has to become the bassist and I have to become the piano. So we begin to add elements, make two instruments do what normally we do with four. So it means you have to work twice as hard.

‘Unfortunately we can’t come to Scotland with the band. That’s something I’d really love to do, but those are the kind of things I never get invited to do’.

Shepp’s Big Band plays music not only from the Attica Blues album but from his whole career.

‘We’re adding some new music, not really new but some things I didn’t record with the band. For example, we have Claudine Myers doing blues, spirituals, she’ll be doing a lot of her songs with the band. Most of the pieces were written for a big band and a big band drummer so to that degree there won’t be that much variance from what we originally did. We recorded Attica Blues twice, once in 1971 and again in France in 1979’.

Phat Jam (2009) saw Shepp incorporate rapping and beatboxing into a jazz format. To some, this might seem quite an unusual move, but for Shepp it is natural, as he sees rap as part of a wider black tradition.

‘Well, I’m sort of a godfather of rap. I recorded my first, well they call it slam today, a piece called ‘Mama Rose’. I did ‘The Wedding’, ‘Poem For Malcolm’, going back to 1963-64, long before they had so-called rap music. I was a poet, so I was using poetry in recorded music long before the period of rap. And before me there were people like Langston Hughes and Jimmy Guiffre in the 1950s, who did the jazz and poetry thing, going back to Duke Ellington’s ‘Peter & The Wolf’ which was recorded in 1924. So I don’t feel that rap and hip-hop is such new music, what’s new is that black poetry has become commercial and used in the context of what they call rap. It takes on a dance dimension but in fact there’s not anything new to it. It’s just that at the time, people didn’t dance to the music, but now poetry has been combined with drum rhythms, people dance to poetry. During my time they danced to musical instruments.

‘When you talk about African-American music, music made by blacks in the United States, all that music goes back to the spiritual, and the blues has some political implication to it. The blues tell the story of black people, how they suffer and how they overcome suffering. This music begins with the so-called work song. When blacks first came to America as slaves, they didn’t sing blues, they sang work songs, which you can hear in the music of someone like Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) the great folksinger who wrote ‘Goodnight Irene’. These are songs of labour, hard work, which eventually became the blues, the cries and the hollers. Contemporary rock ‘n roll music is based on the negro work song, the hollers and field cries.

‘Jazz to me could be anything from Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, it could be whatever they call jazz today. I use the term African-American music, which includes the spiritual, includes the gospel, includes the whole history of that music. Includes the music of South America: candomble, vodou, santeria… I mean the whole tradition of African-American music, not only the United States, but all the Americas, south and north America and the Carribbean, and the music made by blacks that come from that area’.

You can see that all-encompassing vision in your music, I suggest.

‘You can see it in all the music. If you look at contemporary people like Marcus Miller and some of the younger musicians, they combine the rhythms of bossa nova, samba. It’s been syncretised into popular music performance. When I think of my music, personally, I think of how we’ve been influenced by so many other forms of African-American music, including reggae and so on, and how that music has been influenced by black music from the United States. For example, Bob Marley often spoke of Sam Cooke’.

The Edinburgh show will only be Shepp’s second trip to Scotland, but he is a long-time admirer of the country’s traditions.

‘It seems like a beautiful city. I think Scotland, its countryside, its ambience, it’s quite a beautiful country. Unfortunately I haven’t much time to see the place. But I’m aware of its history and its tradition. The Anglo-Scottish and Irish tradition is very important to the evolution of America’.

I suggest that you can hear elements of Scottish folk songs, via the Appalachian tradition, in jazz musicians Charlie Mingus and Albert Ayler. And of course you have Ayler and Rufus Harley playing the bagpipes.

‘Yeah, the pipes, John Coltrane was very very interested in bagpipes, he played the pipes. He never played them publicly, but he was very interested in learning the techniques. So Scottish music from that point of view has been very important for some African-American musicians. Also your poetry is very important, Robert Burns is a great poet. And Scots actually use syncopation in their music and language. You have a rich tradition’.

Archie Shepp, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Wed 1 Aug, 8pm, £20-30 (£18).