Thursday, November 10, 2011

November 10: Archie Shepp, "The Magic Of Ju-Ju"

Artist: Archie Shepp
Song: "The Magic Of Ju-Ju"
Album: The Magic Of Ju-Ju
Year: 1967

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When it comes to the list of the so-called "jazz greats," in almost every case one can follow the musician in question's progress to a certain sound, or from one style to the next in a rather linear fashion.  Though one can assume that during the time it was actually occurring, it may have seemed like radical moves or experiments, in hindsight it makes far more logical sense.  It is with this in mind that there are actually very few jazz performers from the 1940's, 50's, and 60's that were truly "experimental," as a majority can be seen as ahead of their time or pioneering, as opposed to the more wild, unruly idea of such a term.  Yet it is due to this reality that those few jazz performers that do embody the term "experimental" become far more obvious, and there was perhaps no more impressive a musician of this type than the great Archie Shepp.  Throughout his career, Shepp was labeled a wide range of things, from a jazz pioneer to a radical performer (in the negative sense of the word) to an unapologetic civil rights activist, and it was this wide range of labels that push him to one of the most storied and eclectic recorded catalogs in all of music history.  Releasing a truly staggering amount of music throughout the 1960's and 1970's, Shepp made massive developments all across the jazz spectrum, and one can easily argue that Archie Shepp rarely sounded better or more musically courageous than on the title track to his 1967 album, The Magic Of Ju-Ju.

Clocking in at more than eighteen minutes, there is no question that on many levels, "The Magic Of Ju-Ju" stands far apart from nearly every other recording in all of jazz history.  While Shepp himself is nothing short of brilliant, one cannot overlook the efforts of his backing band, as they stand as one of the most unique configurations of all time.  Perhaps the most prominent musical factor found on "The Magic Of Ju-Ju" is the perfectly arranged and aligned multiple rhythms, and this comes from the five different percussionists that play on the track.  It is the way that these sounds work in such a stark manner that gives the track an almost primitive feel, and yet due to the speed with which they are playing, "The Magic Of Ju-Ju" has a similarly dizzying energy.  The talking drums and rhythm logs played by Frank Charles and Ed Blackwell respectively lend a very roots-based and authentic feel to the track, and one can see this as the finest fusion of avant-jazz and what would later be termed as "Afrobeat."  As these two combine with the ever-present triangle and more traditional sounding drums, there is a fury that builds and builds to a level that seems to transcend the boundaries of music itself.  It is the fact that even in what sounds like a chaotic arrangement, there is a strict order that each of the five percussionists are following which pushes "The Magic Of Ju-Ju" to stand as one of the most impressive rhythm pieces ever recorded.

However, while there is no arguing the unprecedented nature of the rhythm of "The Magic Of Ju-Ju," it is the presence and playing of Archie Shepp that truly vaults this song into a category all its own.  From almost the moment that he begins playing, Shepp's performance is nothing short of breathtaking, as he lends a power and almost madness to the song that must be heard to be properly understood and appreciated.  To call this performance "free-form" is an understatement, and if one gives this that label, then no other recording in history can be referred to as such, as there is simply no other song in all of music history that can even remotely compare.  There is a passion within the playing of Archie Shepp that goes far beyond the idea of a particular style or mood, as he has completely given himself to the music, letting the spirit of the track dictate where and what he plays.  His blurts and blasts add an almost uncontainable amount of tension to the song, and he is able to stretch out this tension to a place that seems far beyond its limit.  The fact that there is no other "lead" instrument on the track makes the completely captivating performance of Archie Shepp all the more impressive, as he keeps the listener engaged from end to end, and proves that even in such a stripped down arrangement, superb results can be found if one approaches the music in the proper manner.

Throughout "The Magic Of Ju-Ju," one would not be that far off-base to call the musicians "possessed," as they are so locked in with the blistering pace, that there is no question that it was the spirit and energy within the room that "wrote" much of this song.  Truth be told, the fact that "The Magic Of Ju-Ju" was recorded in a single day is somewhat unsurprising, as one can easily argue that had the session been spread out over a number of days, the energy and feel of the song would have likely been lost.  Yet in reality, Archie Shepp continues to be somewhat unknown within the world of jazz saxophonists, even though one can easily make the case that he was far more of an "artist" than nearly any other performer in music history.  Playing in a range of musical styles that seemed to never end, one can find Shepp within some of the finest jazz configurations ever known, and yet it is his uncompromising and completely distinctive sound that makes him so unique.  When one hears his recordings, it is understandable why he was often referred to as a "radical" within the world of jazz, and yet there is no question that his contributions to the genre were some of the most pivotal in the development of the "avant" and "free" sounds.  Though there are a number of recordings from Archie Shepp that can easily be labeled as "legendary," there is no question that he was at his best on the title track to his 1969 album, The Magic Of Ju-Ju.

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