Shepp Sharp, Fiery and Free at Enjoy Fest

Archie Shepp06

The Enjoy Jazz festival is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, presenting gigs between three main cities in south-western Germany. It's an extended season that usually begins in early October, stretching until mid-November. Each night features a show in either Heidelberg, Ludwigshafen or Mannheim, sometimes with simultaneous happenings in each location.

This year's artist-in-residence is the veteran saxophonist Archie Shepp, and his first showing was at the Mannheim National Theatre, with an expanded crew revisiting his Fire Music album, from way back in 1965. Being his second release for the Impulse! label, a certain amount of free jazz was surely promised, rather than the more mainline style that Shepp has favoured during recent decades. We were not disappointed, as this eight-piece crew (including Hamid Drake on drums) set out to capture the essence of the original contents with a surprising closeness of spirit and style.

Drake (bells, mallets) and bowing bassist Darryl Hall laid sparse improvised terrain for Shepp's recital of 'Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm', followed by a pointed, overblowing solo on soprano saxophone, precise spikes driven in. The old LP's key track, 'Hambone', wasn't quite as complicatedly careening, here, but Shepp's four-piece horn section certainly made a dynamic negotiation. He ripped straight into a tenor solo at high velocity, and Shepp's hornmates looked visibly enamoured of their grand master's inflamed efforts. Drake made lightning snicks and clatters, and regular sideman Carl-Henri Morisset issued a forceful piano statement. Trombonist Sebastien Llado led a bluesy slowing down, and 'Los Olvidados' didn't take long before letting Shepp fly again, with a tough, racing tenor solo. This is an 81-year-old who's not short on stamina.

As with the album, following the three more adventurous pieces, the set's remainder inhabited standards-land, but still involving a few quirks. The reading of 'The Girl From Ipanema' was one of its free-er outings, and Shepp wasn't rationing out his solos. He sang with a croaky, vulnerable tone on 'Prelude To A Kiss', and ended the show with an extra tune, 'Syeeda's Song Flute', a Coltrane number covered on Shepp's Impulse! debut.

In Heidelberg, there were two contrasting gigs at Karlstorbahnhof, an intimate arts venue. The Vincent Peirani Quintet adopt a jazz-rock fusion attitude, though without too much over-electrification. The leader's significant left-hand man is soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien, who pretty much qualifies as a co-leader, so profound is his contribution. For a while, during 'Bang Bang' and 'Unknown Chemistry', he was restrained, but then embarked on his first soprano salvo of the session, swiftly escalating, feet beginning to pixie-prance and side-kick uncontrollably. Peirani's first significant solo was on a chunky chromatic harmonica, but his accordion spotlights would be saved for later in the night. The quintet gave 'Kashmir' a slow build-up, initially unrecognisable, then releasing its full riff, following a snaking Parisien solo. Fractured Rhodes hacks followed, and then a transition was made into 'Stairway To Heaven', this Led Zeppelin celebration being among the most exuberant parts of the performance.

On a more internalised level, The Necks pleasingly offered two sets (and therefore two extended improvisations) at the same venue – often, if appearing at a festival, they'll only play one, so this was a good chance to hear alternate manifestations of their epic-form extemporising. The first set was almost traditionally jazz piano trio in nature, until Chris Abrahams snagged onto a two-note repeat, with snail elaboration, Tony Buck limited to cymbal and small gong, softly resonant, until he added a scrunching metal texture. A blurry shimmer loaded up, Lloyd Swanton's bass alternating between bowed murmurs and sensitive finger-strums. The sombre, blood-red lighting was sympathetic, with slow growth into a saintly white glare. The second Neck-ing began obsessively, Buck deciding on a repetitive hand-drumming figure, on floor tom, fast and unbroken, until he clutched first one shaker, then another. Abrahams had both hands in the middle of his keyboard, amassing a Reichian blur of adjacent sonorities, a sonic mirage shaping, and the number finishing with him alone, as if his delayed entrance gave him some bonus time to conclude.

Over in Ludwigshafen at Das Haus, another well-sized arts haunt, the guitar, bass and drums trio Radian visited from Vienna, though they've been well-schooled in Germanic electro-rock approaches for around two decades. Their basic structure blooms outwards and across via a stack of processing boxes and pedals, splintering, fracturing, glitching and dispersing. Their edges were often brutal, but they also paused to release gaseous clouds of contemplation.

Enjoy Jazz continues until 16th November...

Martin Longley
Photo by Manfred Rinderspacher/Enjoy Jazz 

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