Through the pitch black of the cavernous Richardson Auditorium came piercing words: “In the face of injustice and adversity, certainly some gave their lives looking to change the world.” The voice of legendary jazz saxophonist, musician, singer, and composer Archie Shepp continued, saying “Unfortunately, not much has changed. Sometimes, things seem to be even worse. Perhaps we are all prisoners.”
And so, with Shepp’s address in reference to the 1960s and 70s in America, began a special concert of the Jazz at Princeton's Creative Large Ensemble, with Shepp as a guest artist contributing his tenor and soprano saxophone skills, as well as his vocals. Conducted by Darcy James Argue, the concert featured selections from Shepp’s extensive body of work, primarily focusing on pieces from his 2013 Grammy Award-nominated recording "I Hear the Sound." A politically driven album, "I Hear the Sound" was created as a new recording of Shepp’s famous 1972 record "Attica Blues," inspired by the Attica Prison riots of 1971 in western New York, in which 39 people lost their lives.
“In this time, in this day and age of the way jazz is transmitted, jazz education has become an industry. It has become a business,” explained Rudresh Mahanthappa, the Anthony H. P. Lee ’79 Director of Jazz, in his remarks at the concert. Mahanthappa noted that while jazz education’s accessibility is positive, the political and historical aspects that tend to brand jazz music can sometimes be lost.
“The thing that falls to the side is the social context of this music, and this music as a voice of protest and social action and community movement. And in that sense, Archie has been not only a great musician, but kind of a perfect musician in embodying all of that,” Mahanthappa said. He added that given the current political climate, the work of the evening, the "Attica Blues Suite," was especially apropos.
Throughout the evening, Shepp spoke to the audience in between pieces, sharing stories of how certain songs were created and the inspiration behind them. In his introduction to the final piece, “I Hear the Sound,” Shepp brought the theme of the evening to the forefront, explaining how the song is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Attica riots, saying that “State power is unrelenting and something that we should stand up against” before starting the final and most powerful piece of the night.
Shepp’s impressive career has spanned decades of political and social change in the United States and beyond. In 2016, he received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award, the highest honor a jazz musician can receive. He has made 17 records and has performed his music around the world, collaborating with the likes of great artists including John Coltrane, John Dixon, and Cecil Taylor, just to name a few. Despite these collaboration with the greats of jazz, he is still largely considered to be an avant-garde jazz musician. As a result, his work has led him to explore a multitude of sounds, and the set list for this performance mirrored this diversity, showcasing a wide range of musical styles and even featuring a string quartet and choir.
Shepp’s stage presence, cultivated over this long and productive career, was unmistakable, seeing him seated at the front of the stage and delivering masterful solos on the saxophone and belting out melodies with his stentorian voice. Yet, he also appeared entirely cognizant of those around him, treating each musician as his equal as he introduced pieces and performers. Throughout the course of the concert, students from all instrument sections were given the opportunity to execute a staple of jazz: the solo. Among some of the most memorable solos were Spencer Hadley ’18, who captivated the crowd with his trumpet on Calvin Massey’s “The Cry of My People,” and Rajeev Erramilli ’18, whose trombone solo on Shepp’s piece, “Mama Too Tight,” was met with one of the most enthusiastic rounds of applause of the evening.
The choir, led by jazz performance faculty member Dr. Trineice Robinson-Martin, acted as a wonderful complement to the instruments, with solos from Allison Spann ’20 and Anson Jones ’21 acting as beautiful demonstrations of the products that can be born from the relationship between vocalist and musician. While true mastery of jazz can take decades to achieve, the ensemble members held their own, even when performing alongside one of the most accomplished jazz musicians in the world.
Furthermore, as if simply having Shepp perform with the ensemble was not enough, the audience and musicians alike were granted the opportunity to hear from two other immensely talented guest performers, vocalist and pianist Amina Claudine Myers as well as vocalist Marion Rampal. Relying more on the piano and drums for her pieces, Myers’s vocals haunted Richardson in a beautiful, poignant manner. With a delivery rather different from Myers’s, Rampal still achieved an equally rewarding outcome with her performance of “Déjá Vu.”
The event took place on Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium.