Archie Shepp’s Art Songs & Spirituals blows the blues away at Barbican

Archie Shepp Barbican 191118 038

This evening gets off to a flying start with Simon Purcell's excellent Red Circle band of London jazz A-listers, augmented by the impressive presence of Cleveland Watkiss. Clad in a white tunic reminiscent of the most uncompromisingly old-school type of dentist, he negotiates the twists and turns of Purcell's adventurous compositions with skill and panache, and matches the strength and stamina of Chris Batchelor and Julian Siegel's frontline armed only with his clear, powerful voice, as drummer Gene Calderazzo sets off percussive bombs underneath.

Introduced, to knowing cheers, as "a music maker for the many, not the few", Archie Shepp delivers a professorial preamble on the link between the Art Song and the Spiritual before launching into his one-time mentor Coltrane's composition 'Wise One'. His voice on tenor remains as unique as it has for 50 years – a hoarse, watery, wavery tone, notes eliding and skimming around the melody, building up to a splintery peak and descending again in a tumbling blurry cascade, treading a pathway inside and outside the harmony that's all his own. 'Isfahan' gives space for pianist Pierre Francois Blanchard to let loose his florid but carefully controlled virtuosity, reminiscent of Shepp's long-ago collaborator Michel Petrucciani; Matyas Szandai on bass and Hamid Drake on drums show that they're slick operators too.

Archie Shepp Barbican 191118 394

Then it's down to business: enter a nine-strong choir, extra saxophone and trumpet, and Amina Claudine Myers, matching Shepp's trademark fedora with her fez as she takes her place at the Hammond organ. Shepp asks for a note from the pianist, then without further introduction leads the band in song – the old-fashioned uplifting gospel of 'All God's Children Got A Home In The Universe'. 'God Bless The Child' meanders somewhat before Shepp turns in a touchingly sincere verse in his impassioned, froggy baritone, but classic protest era 'Blues For Brother George Jackson' is as timely and powerful now as it was back in 1972, and gets a fittingly stirring rendition.

Each song is laden with significance, joyous or solemn, from Ellington's 'Come Sunday' (Carleen Anderson raises the roof) to Massey's 'The Cry Of My People', while Shepp's starkly personal tribute to his mother, 'Rest Enough', blurs the boundaries between the personal lament and the political voice. Overall though, despite the palpable sincerity of the performers, and the weight of context underscored by Shepp's carefully enunciated introductions, the impetus of the performances themselves tends to waver, and some of the warmth gets lost in the Barbican's capaciously austere space. There's a preponderance of slow tempos and long, slightly disorganised explorations, and sometimes not even the mighty Drake can really keep the fire blazing. Then comes 'Ballad For A Child' – beautifully sung at the Hammond by Myers, with the lush texture of the choir, the sensitive accompaniment from the musicians, and the leader's plaintively wavering saxophone all combining for a moment of real magic before the close.

– Eddie Myer

– Photos by Mark Allan/Barbican

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