While it's become something of a standard in the jazz avant-garde in the last few decades, the unaccompanied solo was a scarcity before the 1970s. Multi-phonic instruments — the piano, maybe on occasion the guitar — but it took the brash young men of Chicago's AACM (Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell and others) to bring non-chordal solos into the fold.
Once the wall was down, older musicians were quick to take the challenge. And true, in one respect, a sax solo over a Duke Ellington tune is only so different without rhythm section backing, and certainly Max Roach was already famed for his drum solos and arrangements, even if they were fitted into larger pieces in rather more traditional ways.
In that context, there's something charming about Roach and Archie Shepp's concert recording from 1979. It isn't that they're trying to catch up — they're far too savvy of players to have to do that — but they are feeling the new freedom. Already representing two generations of jazz, the duo confidently accepts a third, making for a record that seems of several times at once.
The disc opens with "J.C. Moses," a six-minute Roach solo. The master here isn't trying to cop from the younger soloists, he's not trying to pick up from Rashied Ali or Andrew Cyrille or Famadou Don Moye. He is modern in mind, but a bopper at heart; he might reference Afro-centric drum singing, but the little circles he draws on the snare wear the badge of the decades he'd already put in.
Shepp takes the next solo. He was one of the players who sprung from Coltrane's forehead in the early '60s, but by the late '70s he was already redefining himself as a traditionalist (back when that was a radical thing to do). His take on Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" seems for the most part to be in-name-only, taking the tune so far out that the dropped-back-in phrases are easy to miss until the final iteration.
The sax/drum duo wasn't much older at the time of their Willisau concert, and the rest of the first disc of the newly reissued set features two long duos. Roach's title track comes in at close to half an hour and it the center section of his Sweet Mao, written on the occasion of Mao Zedong's death. That is followed by Shepp's infectious "U-JAA-MA" closes the first disc.
Curiously, the second disc follows the same arc as the first. Roach opens with "Triptych — For Big Sid — Drums Unlimited — Papa Joe," dedicated to some of his own heroes. Whether it's the inspiration or the momentum of the concert, his solo here is even stronger, with some exciting cymbal work. Shepp follows with a dedication of his own, taking apart Coltrane's "Giant Steps" much like he did Ben Webster's sax on "Sophisticated Lady." Roach's mournfully charged "South Africa Goddamn" (it's title no doubt a nod to another politically outspoken jazz artist, Nina Simone), with Shepp's bluesy tenor wails making it the highlight of the package. They close with Roach's "It's Time," suggesting both an social ultimatum (it's hard not to think in such terms with Roach and Shepp) and a rhythm, a count for the upbeat workout.
The program runs a full 93 minutes, and it's a testament to both men that with only trap drums and a tenor sax they never run thin. It is a bit a product of its times, and at the time was a product of the decades that came before. Their tradition runs deep.
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