Archie Shepp: I Know About the Life (2003)
I Know About the Life is a 1981 recording, now happily reissued by that splendid avatar of avant-garde music, Werner X. Uehlinger of Hat Hut Records. The rap on Shepp is that after his moment of glory in the Sixties and his no-holds-barred Impulse discs, he lost his edge, or his interest, or his nerve, and retreated. He himself is on record saying that avant-garde music was not commercially viable, and that he wanted to make some music that his family and friends could listen to. But any suggestion that that signaled a retreat should be dispelled by this disc.
Shepp's tenor playing has never been more fluent, more versatile, or more expressive, than it is on these four tracks. Aided by utterly superb backing from Kenny Werner, Santi Debriano, and the incomparable John Betsch, he tears into two Monk tunes, one by Coltrane, and one of his own compositions to demonstrate that the "outside" players of the sixties made a great many discoveries (some of them hardly new, but actually dating back to the earliest days of jazz) that could enrich and revitalize "standard" jazz playing. On "Giant Steps," for example, Shepp shows that he is every bit the match of Coltrane's extraordinarily fleet harmonic playing, but he takes his solo to another level as well, investing what had been a sleek and exuberant original with a pathos, a cry, that adds immeasurably to the expressive range of the music.
Likewise, the Monk tunes, which are too often played simply as exhibitions, or as jaunty excursions into what the performers obviously consider to be the quirky world of Monk's changes. But Shepp approaches this music with a seriousness and daring that pays off to remarkable effect, adding a blistering emotionality to each and plumbing depths that few other interpreters even seem to realize are there.
This exquisite reissue should establish I Know About the Life in its rightful place among Shepp's works and give it a permanent place in any list of the greatest recordings of the period. Bravo.
Track Listing: Well You Needn't / I Know About the Life / Giant Steps / Round Midnight
Personnel: Archie Shepp, ts; Kenny Werner, p; Santi Debriano, b; John Betsch, d.