I like to own all manner of different LP’s for different purposes, music to make me happy, music to mope to, music to dance along with and, just in case, music to end armed stand-offs with. One of my Top 5 LP’s to force an end to a siege* would be Archie Shepp Poem For Malcolm, and I mean no disrespect when I say most perps would be handing themselves over to the authorities halfway through the A side.
Many years ago back when the world was young and I was a hairy 15-year-old, I spent the school holidays exploring my parents’ record collection and I discovered that this ‘jazz’ thing they liked wasn’t so bad after all**. Then I picked up a copy of New Thing At Newport because I’d heard the name John Coltrane, put the needle down and was exposed to Archie Shepp playing ‘Rufus (Swung His Face at Last to the Wind, Then His Neck Snapped)’. From memory, I fled the room. I had never heard anything so excoriating, so jagged, unmelodic and so frightening. 28 years later I put myself through it again by purchasing Poem For Malcolm.
Free jazz is a tricky bugger. There are times I find it uniquely liberating, unshackled from conventions and able to pursue an idea as transient, flighty and delicate as a butterfly on the wing. There are also times when it sounds like being tied up and subjected to 40 chimpanzees let loose in an orchestra pit whilst being beaten around the face and neck by a copper kettle, reeking of self-indulgence and virtuosity for the sake of itself^. I find that Poem For Malcolm covers both extremes.
For the good side flip the disc to side B and ‘Rainforest / Oleo’, where Shepp shares a writing credit with Miles Davis. This starts slow and clear and proceeds over the next 19 minutes via dense thickets of squonking to glimpses and glades of calmness and tranquillity, with the added bonus of some tenor sax duetting with Hank Mobley, hinting at more traditional be-bop shapes. I really love the way that it is just Shepp entirely unaccompanied until 5 minutes in, the tenor squalling takes on the air of a desperate attempt to communicate until that point, the drums (played by the brilliant Philly Joe Jones) are such a relief. After that we’re soaring again, although there’s a fair amount of turbulence on our starboard side.
The first side of Poem For Malcolm features willful noises off and declamatory vocals that hurdle the fence between portentous and pretentious and just keep on trucking. The best that can be said for ‘Mamarose’ is that everyone involved got a damn good finger workout. I find the actual ‘poem’ part of ‘Poem For Malcolm’ to be unlistenable bollocks – I’m sorry Archie but the word ‘vagina’ is not hip and cool^^, especially when you declaim it over what sounds like Alan Silva changing a string on his bass … for 7 minutes. No.
Now it has to be said that I may actually be missing some context here, luckily there are sleevenotes (Yay!) … in French (Boo!). Now the reason I booed that is because despite the fact France is a country I love dearly, my written/read French is pretty piss poor, 13 year-old standard really. I have scanned les notes du sleeve but as none of it relates to how many brothers or sisters Mr Shepp has, his pets and whether his band like tennis and camping, it’s all a bit beyond me. Je suis désolé.
The fact that Poem For Malcolm was recorded only 2 days after Shepp’s previous album could give a certain amount of fuel to the fire that this type of jazz was just drizzled out, ready or not, at too quick a rate, or with so little thought that you could knock out three of these a week and still have the Lord’s day off. It was recorded in Paris the day before the Woodstock Festival, sonic revolution was a thing in 1969.
It’ll be a while before I throw Poem For Malcolm on again but I am glad I own it and not just for the time when the police knock on the door and tell me there’s an armed stand-off going down at Fred and Doris’ house at #65, they’ve got the speakers all set up but have forgotten their LPs.
Vive le jazz gratuit!
PS. Miles Davis had strong views on free jazz in general and Archie Shepp in particular which he articulates in his usual innocuous way:
‘(Tony Williams brought) Archie Shepp to the Vanguard one night to sit in, and he was so awful that I just walked off the bandstand. He couldn’t play and I wasn’t going to stand up there with this no-playing motherfucker.’
*not necessarily in a dry way.
**thanks to my mum sitting me down and making me listen to Charles Lloyd Forest Flower.
^one of my very least favourite things in music. That and that awful 80s gated snare drum sound. That and that awful 80s gated snare drum sound and hip-hop artists who think it’s okay to cover a perfectly a good song and say ‘one time’ every so often over the good bits. That and that awful 80s gated snare drum sound and hip-hop artists who think it’s okay to cover a perfectly a good song and say ‘one time’ every so often over the good bits and glam metal bands who do bass solos. The end.
^^all us cool kids are saying ‘front bottom’ these days, it’s way more street.