Thursday, June 4, 2009

June 4: Archie Shepp, "The Magic Of Ju-Ju"

Artist: Archie Shepp
Album: The Magic Of Ju-Ju
Year: 1967
Label: Impulse!

To be a jazz musician in the 1950's and 1960's, it was not all that out of the ordinary to experiment with new styles and buck the trend of traditional jazz form. It was during this time that artists like Coltrane, Davis, Ayler, and countless others helped to push the jazz genre outwards and forwards. Having been labeled as everything from a "throwback to the old times" to a "loose cannon radical," there are few things that saxophone player Archie Shepp has NOT been called. Perhaps known just as well for his blunt, unrelenting commentaries on injustice and racism as he was for his stunning musical compositions, Shepp was perhaps the most articulate, yet also unsettling figures of his generation. Having recorded more than sixty albums since the early 1960's, Shepp's stamp can be found all over the finest jazz works in history. Some of the best though, were his own solo albums, and at the top of those records stands his phenomenal 1967 release, The Magic Of Ju-Ju.

Archie Shepp is easily one of the most important figures in jazz, and his resum├ę is just as impressive as his recorded catalog. Before taking over his own band, Shepp spent a good deal of time working with the likes of Cecil Taylor, and was also a member of the equally amazing New York Contemporary Five with Don Cherry. Shepp also made significant contributions to a handful of John Coltrane records, most notably, his work on the magnificent A Love Supreme (though none of Shepp's contributions made it to the final cut, but are available on the 2002 reissue) as well as on the legendary Coltrane masterpiece, Ascension. It is largely thanks to his work with Coltrane that Shepp found himself a home at Impulse! Records. After his work with Coltrane, Shepp release a few solo works, and then The Magic Of Ju-Ju, which would define his sound and style for the next few years. The album was recorded in a single day (April 26, 1967), and after hearing the record, it is nothing short of stunning that such musical mastery was able to be achieved in such a short time frame. Of course, it didn't hurt to have legendary producer Bob Thiele (Coltrane, Armstrong, Ellington, etc) overseeing the recording process.

All of The Magic Of Ju-Ju centers around the eighteen minute long title track. The composition, which features five percussionists and the lone horn of Shepp is one of the most brilliant pieces ever played. "The Magic Of Ju-Ju" is the finest fusion of free-form jazz and Afrobeat sounds to ever be recorded. Shepp takes the lead from the very opening of the song and dazzles for the entire length of the track. The high energy performance never loses steam, and the tension builds further as each additional percussionist joins in as the song progresses. The talking drums, rhythm logs, and other backing percussion create an absolutely chaotic feel to the track, yet it is clear that Shepp is well beyond focused at each and every moment. It is this focus that makes this track something of another world. The sound that comes from Shepp as he flows through the piece have been called "possessed," and even "godly" by some. Truly, it is almost impossible to fathom how he was able, both creatively and physically, to deliver such an awe-inspiring performance for that length in one single take.

Though completely overshadowed by the title track, the three remaining pieces found on The Magic Of Ju-Ju are too good to be ignored. Playing nearly a complete contrast to the title track, "You're What This Day Is All About" is a far more standard piece with very strict construction, and clocks in at just under two minutes. "Shazam!" is a brilliant, bouncing number that presents a fantastic interplay between Shepp and trumpet player, Martin Banks. On the track, the pair seem to "chase" one another, as bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Norman Connors fly behind them in the background. The final track on The Magic Of Ju-Ju also happens to be perhaps the most "fun" song, "Sorry 'bout That." The track has a deep, funky groove from the opening moments, and the horn players work masterfully within the groove. Incorporating elements of swing, soul, and r&b, the song is an absolute jazz masterpiece, and the perfection lasts the entire run of the ten minute song. Though the title track is the true gem of The Magic Of Ju-Ju, the "b-side" compositions are superb and absolutely hold their own.

Perhaps due to the sheer number of experiential jazz musicians; perhaps because of his radical views and ideas, Archie Shepp is sadly one of the lesser known of the jazz greats. Having contributed to some of the most influential jazz recordings in history, as well as releasing a number of seminal works on his own, the music he has given to the world has helped to shape what jazz music has become. Whether serving as a "side man" or taking the lead with his own groups, Archie Shepp shines brilliantly on every album on which he has ever appeared. Perfecting the art of mixing free and avant jazz forms with Afrobeat rhythms, Shepp was a pivotal figure, forming the blueprint for a new style along with the likes of Pharoah Sanders. It is the undeniable talent of Shepp that enabled him and his group to accomplish the nearly unthinkable task of recording all of The Magic Of Ju-Ju in a single session. Archie Shepp has contributed so much to the world of jazz that it is nearly impossible to understate his importance, or to find a piece of his work that is not worth cherishing. However, with his 1967 release, The Magic Of Ju-Ju, Shepp delivered such an amazing and stunning performance that it has helped him to become a true jazz legend and icon.

Standout tracks: "The Magic Of Ju-Ju," "Shazam!," and "Sorry 'bout That."

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