Review: ‘NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp’s All-Star Tribute to John Coltrane’ at the Kennedy Center

Moments in jazz performances punctuate the annals of jazz history. There are some performances that you wished you had attended because they will be talked about for years. “Archie Shepp’s All-Star Tribute to John Coltrane” featuring Jason Moran is such a performance. Moran, who is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, summed up the occasion with one statement shouted three times at the end of the performance, “Archie Shepp is at the Kennedy Center.”

NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp's all-star tribute to John Coltrane. Photo by Jati Lindsay.
NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp’s all-star tribute to John Coltrane. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

For jazz enthusiasts, the full-house and all-star band reinforce belief in not only the ubiquitousness of jazz but also in its endurance despite some pronouncements that a certain artist is making jazz “cool again.” By the looks of the audience and one fan waving four Shepp album covers in the air trying to get Shepp’s attention, jazz is cooler than ever. Well at least at the Kennedy Center.

What better master of the music to remind us that giants still walk the Earth than jazz titan and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp. Taking the stage to a round of applause, after sharing his history with Coltrane, the band jumps right into “Syeeda’s Song Flute” written by Coltrane for his daughter and originally recorded on “Giant Steps,” and subsequently recorded by Shepp on his album “Four for Trane.”

Playing while seated does not impede Shepp’s ability to deliver clear, biting notes with power before riffing on the superb playing of trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. Moran’s comping on the piano and Darryl Hall walking on the bass, turn one of Coltrane’s less structurally complicated tunes into sheer delight.

Breaking it all the way down to African American folk culture, drummer Nasheet Waits turns his body into a percussive instrument and aptly delivers “Hambone” to Shepp’s vocals. In addition to Shepp’s singing, vocalist Marion Rampal delivers a spoken-word almost chanted tribute to Black men in “Blasé.” Rampal’s vocals remain hauntingly beautiful in this tune.

As expected in any tribute to Coltrane, the band delivers “My One and Only Love,” “Cousin Mary,” and “Naima” like a well-seasoned quintet. Moran’s opening bars on “My One and Only Love” speak to the virtuosity of Moran’s playing and his sheer genius in putting together this program. Shepp’s solo on this tune for tenor sax sounds exquisite as he seems effortlessly to glide up and down the register.

The added treat on “Cousin Mary,” written by Coltrane for his cousin Mary, are ElSaffar’s blazing trumpet as he soars and Hall’s accentuating bass. Moran almost takes us to church while Waits drives the entire tune home. The quintet heats all the way up, and then brings it down for one of Coltrane’s more memorable tunes written for his wife, “Naima.” Shepp “sheppifies” the tune, making it fuller and seemingly more complex than Coltrane recorded it. Each musician claims a piece of the tune as his own, something that one imagines Shepp not only encouraged but could not control given the accomplishments of these musicians.

Because Shepp’s music spawns so much from his personal life, he tributes the next tune to Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s film, “Los Olvidados” (“The Forgotten Ones). Drawing parallels between the film and Shepp’s own impoverished childhood growing up in Philadelphia, he launches into a composition that refuses to serve up a melody. Punctuated by multiple rhythmic patterns and a fragmented almost pastiche-like arrangement, “Los Olvidados” resembles symphonic movements. The “second” movement adapts an irregular rhythm with Moran punctuating with the same three chords while Hall repeats three notes on bass. As soon as your ear grows accustomed to the pattern, chords, and notes, Shepp changes it up again. Begging for something to hold on to, Shepp’s compositions will release you and force you to find your own way. Yet, the beauty of a Shepp composition is what it requires from the ear: you must pay attention and listen.

NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp's all-star tribute to John Coltrane. Photo by Jati Lindsay.
NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp’s all-star tribute to John Coltrane. Photo by Jati Lindsay.

The Shepp sound emerges in full display in Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” an Ellington piece that Shepp wishes Coltrane had recorded. Opening with Shepp and Moran, the ease with which they play together speaks to Moran’s enthusiasm for bringing Shepp to the Kennedy Center and the value in Moran having previously played with him. Shepp delights us with his vocals on this tune; Moran accompanies him with pacing that matches Shepp’s phrasing. One wishes to hear more of the Shepp and Moran ensemble.

Never forgetting that Shepp occupies a prodigious place in jazz history, we must also remember his commitment to Black history. For the encore, Shepp plays “Blues for Brother George Jackson,” a tribute to George Jackson, one of the Soledad brothers, who died in San Quentin prison. Opening with Hall’s accented notes, Rampal’s vocals enter and become eerily reminiscent of Nina Simone’s. Perhaps we need to remember how politically engaging Shepp’s music was when drawing on the historical events of Civil Rights and Black Power movements. His lyrics remind us of those turbulent times.

According to Guthrie Ramsey, musicologist and Shepp scholar, what “excites me about this programming is that there’s a Philadelphia focus to it. Although their respective careers were centered in New York, Shepp was raised in Philly and Coltrane spent formative years there as well. Hard bop, the style with which each is associated, was nurtured in Philadelphia and still has a stronghold there among working musicians. Jason Moran, curator of the event, respects this kind of tradition, being that he’s from Houston, another jazz stronghold.” We hope for more programming like this from Moran, and after such an enthusiastic reception and full house, Moran will probably deliver again.

Running time about 75 minutes, with no intermission.

NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp’s All-Star Tribute to John Coltrane featuring Jason Moran played one-night-only at the Kennedy Center on Sunday, February 10, 2019. For information on future Kennedy Center events, go online.