Archie Shepp’s remarkable first full studio album Four for Trane consists mostly of Coltrane covers—unsurprising considering the title—but his follow-up Fire Music, recorded in the wake the assassination of Malcolm X, counts three Shepp compositions alongside tunes by Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim. The last of these Shepp compositions is “Malcolm Malcolm Semper Malcolm,” a brief poem reflecting on X’s passing, which happened a week before the recording, followed by an expressive, pained solo by Shepp with minimal backing by David Izenzon and J.C. Moses on bass and drums respectively.
Malcolm X is not an explicit presence on any of Shepp’s albums in the four years after Fire Music, although his legacy haunts every sonic, cultural, and personal exploration that Shepp undertook during this time. In August 1969, when Shepp recorded three studio albums for BYG Actuel over the course of five days, he decided to grapple once again with the X’s towering legacy. What’s more, he again chose to use a poem to do this on “Poem for Malcolm,” which closes out the first side of the album of the same name.
The poetry aspect of “Poem for Malcolm” unfortunately dates the piece in a way that doesn’t affect the rest of Shepp’s discography from this period, which is a problem that afflicts most of the free jazz songs from this era that incorporate poetry. Still, the playing by Burton Greene on piano, Alan Silva on bass, and Philly Joe Jones and Claude Delcloo on drums is almost uniformly exceptional. Unlike “Malcolm Malcolm Semper Malcolm,” in which instrumentation was used sparingly during the poem, melancholy was no longer the appropriate emotion for the composition. Four years on from X’s death, things were in many ways worse for African Americans, and the bands muted, funereal reserve on the earlier song is replaced by roiling frustration that builds to anger and emotional chaos. That two of the performers on this song (Greene and Delcloo) are white does not disrupt the overall instrumental thrust of the piece.
“Poem for Malcolm” is preceded by “Mamarose,” which features the same lineup. Burton Greene’s interior piano work opens the song, and he is soon joined by bells, bowed bass, and Shepp yelling and yodeling. All of these elements together induce pretty serious discomfort as they all build to a percussive torrent. After a while, it almost sounds as if Shepp’s yelling is that of a man crying for help as he drowns in the waves of sound. Things eventually cool down a bit and Shepp joins in on soprano saxophone. His primary instrument is the tenor, and it’s interesting hearing him play on an instrument that isn’t quite capable of projecting the same kind of fire that is normally the hallmark of his playing. Still, his tone is excellent, and he has a power that is almost never heard on the soprano sax.
“Rain Forest/Oleo,” which fills the entirety of side two, features a slightly different ensemble performing a merger of Shepp’s composition with the Sonny Rollins standard “Oleo.” Gone are Burton Greene and Alan Silva, replaced by Vince Benedetti and Malachi Favors, and Jones is the sole drummer. This quartet is joined by Grachan Moncur III on trombone and Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone. “Rain Forest” begins with an extended unaccompanied solo by Shepp that is among the grittiest in his catalog. It actually sounds like every note is struggling to make if out of his horn intact. I don’t believe that Shepp has ever released a completely solo record a la Anthony Braxton’s For Alto, which is a shame because this ten minute solo shows that Shepp could probably have recorded a great one. Jones and Favors involve themselves in Shepp’s solo a bit, but “Rain Forest” is primarily an outlet for Shepp to search through his instrument.
After ten minutes of Shepp’s exploration, there is a brief interlude of mostly indecipherable talking before Jones heralds the arrival of the band with a long, rolling drum solo. The rendition of “Oleo” that follows is warped to say the least, and it mostly plays as a ripped apart version of the tune until the band switches things up and ends in a much more traditional, boppy style. Moncur, who is for my money the best jazz trombonist (J.J. Johnson is a close second), is the highlight here and he gets some of the meatiest playing out of all of his work for Actuel. Jones and Mobley, who are more known for their hard bop than their free playing, both get to stretch out quite a bit. Comparing Jones’ playing on this version of “Oleo” and on the version on Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet from thirteen years earlier provides an excellent link between the straight ahead and the out, as his playing, while very different on the two versions, is still very much the work of the same person.
Poem for Malcolm’s consistency compared to Yasmina, a Black Woman is a heartening sign for Archie Shepp’s future work for BYG Actuel. He recorded as leader for the label more than any other artist did, and on Poem for Malcolm his work starts really justifying his prominent place in the Actuel story.
Coming up in the weeks ahead:
Actuel 12: Alan Silva and His Celestial Communication Orchestra – Luna Surface
Actuel 13: Paul Bley – Ramblin’
Actuel 14: Acting Trio – Acting Trio
Actuel 15: Anthony Braxton – B-Xo/N-0-1-47a
Actuel 16: Andrew Cyrille – What About?
 Four for Trane was preceded by albums that Shepp did with the New York Contemporary Five and Bill Dixon, but Four is his first album where he is credited as sole leader.
 Poem for Malcolm is the third of Shepp’s Actuel studio albums, recorded on August 14, 1969, two days after Yasmina, a Black Woman, and two days before Blasé.
 Amiri Baraka and the New York Art Quartet’s “Black Dada Nihilismus” is the most notable exception to this rule.
 I’ve made my feelings on Claude Delcloo’s playing abundantly clear in previous entries, although he does much better here than on any of the previous BYG Actuel records he was a part of.
 Especially in the case of Mobley, who pretty much only played free jazz on this album.