Avant-gains

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Warning; Archie Shepp’s recent collaboration with the Ritual Trio signifies some serious heaviosity in the ever-expanding realm of free/modern jazz. A tribute to the late bassist Fred Hopkins (a longtime mainstay of Chicago’s avant-garde community), Con-versations displays four music veterans engaging in an emotive remembrance of their fallen comrade.

Although Shepp’s blustery tenor sax occupies center stage in this production, all of the musicians here are particularly gifted. With Malachi Favors (from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago) plucking deep, resonant bass lines and Kahil El’Zabar driving the ensemble from behind his drums, Mr. Shepp is afforded the luxury of a top-notch rhythm section for the first time in ages. While Ari Brown is better known as an extremely talented saxophonist, his piano playing on this album is both tasteful and intelligent.

Highly reminiscent of John Coltrane’s classic quartet in spirit and in practice, Shepp and his backing ensemble draw great inspiration from the high-flying jazz of the insurgent ’60s. It also must be mentioned that Coltrane was one of Shepp’s biggest influences during those early years and while he has matured greatly since then, Shepp’s playing still contains a vast amount of Trane’s emotional intensity. On the composition "Brother Malcolm" Brown joins Shepp in a gripping saxophone dual and prods the elder into some of his most passionate soloing in years.

A fine introduction to a most legendary and worthwhile saxophonist, Conversations is exactly the showcase that Archie Shepp needed.

Let’s call it a comeback, shall we?

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