Archie Shepp, besides being a playwright and professor, is one of the more notable musicians to come out of the avant-garde (or free) movement that revolutionized jazz in the 1960s. He was considered a fearsome intellectual who articulated his rage at social injustice through his vitriolic and very original tenor sax solos when he wasn't decrying established cultural dogma within earshot of anyone who would listen. But as that decade crept to a close, Shepp seemed to have worn himself out, content to experiment with and explore the African-American tradition in music with the intensity he once reserved for protest.
Forty or so years and innumerable recordings later, Shepp offers an accomplished and beautifully cerebral homage to the blues and its gospel underpinnings. Joining him on St. Louis Blues are the brilliant Richard Davis on bass and fellow free jazz veteran Sunny Murray on drums. Davis, also a professor, is a classicist who works acoustic-only and is associated more with hard bop. A technical master, Davis is also a veteran of several symphony orchestras, including Stravinsky's, but is known best as an inimitable asset on any session. Murray, a propulsive drummer, is more fastidious in style than many of his contemporaries. His unique approach focuses not on laying down a steady beat or keeping a tune's rhythm (he was one of the first to diverge from the norm) but on a meandering parallel accompaniment to the dominant instruments. Guest percussionist Leopoldo Fleming provides an intuitive mix of bongos and other accentuating instruments on all tracks.
W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" feature brief passages of Shepp's guileless vocals, much informed by the spiritual longings of gospel. His tenor sax invokes the melodies of these compositions without running them over, while Davis and Murray intimate the songs' time-worn phrases. Much more exciting, though, are some of the players' own compositions. Murray's "Et Moi" allows Shepp to wander off into Eastern territory, punctuating with the bravura patois of his sax the rhythm stressed so furtively by Murray, while the throbbing cadence of Davis' bass fluidly dominates the low range. Davis' "Total Package" might best be described as trippy as hell. A mind-bending piece opened and transfixed by Davis' use of a bow on his bass, "Total Package" is a wide-open space in which all involved seem to submit to the personal nature of their instrument, whether it be clamorous (drums), meditative (bass), or existential (sax), and enter into an exalted dialogue that ends when Murray, suddenly wild, strikes the resolution into tinkling abeyance, as if revealing some unfocused psychological dread or impatience with the exchange. -- Jeremy Spencer
Brian Eno and Peter Schwalm
Abandon the cliché of song structure (as Brian Eno has done very aggressively during the last 20 years or so) and sooner or later you court the risk of embracing the cliché of meandering noise. It's that old avant-garde catch that vexed thoughtful musicians during the last century. Throw out the predictable tyranny of musical form and chances are you'll end up making a bunch of noise that is interesting and challenging to play but also duller than dishwater to hear. Formless noise often ends up sounding like, well, formless noise. It may be liberating and exciting to make such noise, but listeners are often left out in the cold and excluded by the sonic difficulty of such music.
Brian Eno has usually stayed on the pretty side of this "sound for the sake of sound" divide, making one album after another of pleasant, formless synthesizer noodling. Bad Bri was New Age before there was such a thing. Laying blame for the likes of Kitaro and the entire Windham Hill catalog at his feet may be more than a little unfair, but he was the first one out of the box to achieve some notoriety and sales for his brand of ambient music-making/theorizing in the late '70s. And his career as a producer/collaborator with Talking Heads, David Bowie, and U2 (you gotta feel sorry for the guy there; imagine having to humor Bono as a serious thinker) further makes a case for his allegiance to looking like an edgy, groundbreaking artist while remaining a serviceable hack for recycled ideas. Speaking of recycled ideas, this new one by Eno and Peter Schwalm is full of them, lots of familiar-sounding Yamaha keyboard programming and lush, vaporous washes of percussion (courtesy of Schwalm, who appears to be something of a conservatory-trained percussionist; these pieces are even listed as being "composed" by the two of them). Like his 1995 collaboration with bassist Jah Wobble on Spinner, this is a soothing sound-effects record and not much more. -- Ross Johnson
Devil's Night -- D-12 (Interscope): Eminem and his Detroit homies/flunkies with a posse record that really is the collection of cheap, mostly pointless, occasionally reckless shock tactics that clueless sorts claimed The Marshall Mathers LP was. But that little white boy still spits like a champ. ("Purple Pills," "Fight Music," "Revelation")
Neighborhoods -- Olu Dara (Atlantic): A (coffee) house party thrown by a jazz/blues vet who witnessed "the embryonic state of hip hop" -- aka "young children's music" -- and got something out of it. ("Massamba," "Neighborhoods," "I See the Light")
Cabin In the Hills -- Merle Haggard (Relentless Nashville): One of our greatest living singers with a casual, stripped-down little gospel record that mixes originals and standards but peaks with an Iris Dement cover. ("Farther Along," "Lord Don't Give Up On Me," "Shores of Jordan")
Hi-Teknology -- Hi-Tek (Rawkus): Native Tongues -- The Next Generation. Cincinnati DJ Hi-Tek recruits a passel of singers and MCs, some known (Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli), most not, for a sharp, tasteful set of East Coast hip hop. ("The Sun God," "All I Need Is You," "Round and Round")
You've Seen Us You Must Have Seen Us -- KaitO (Devil In the Woods): If Veruca Salt had been European art-punks with a better handle on sonics than songs. ("Go," "Catnap," "Shoot Shoot")
Cachaito -- Orlando Cachaito Lopez (World Circuit/Nonesuch): The Buena Vista Social Club's sexagenarian bassist with a long-awaited solo joint that's likely the most adventurous and playful record to yet emerge from the Cuban roots renaissance. ("Mis Dos Pequenas," "Cachaito In Laboratory," "Conversacion")
Blue Boy -- Ron Sexsmith (SpinArt): The production switch from Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom's claustrophobic atmospherics to Steve Earle's more live-and-loose sound opens up the celebrated singer-songwriter's mopey music considerably, but Earle can't do much for Sexsmith's mumble-mouth vocals. On the scale of alt-oriented, white-guy singer-songwriters, a notch below Elliott Smith, several notches below Freedy Johnston. ("This Song," "Cheap Hotel," "Just My Heart Talkin'") n -- Chris Herrington