From the moment Ornette Coleman achieved a beachhead for free jazz in 1959, the new music began to take off in all different directions. Players like Eric Dolphy used it as a means to extend the bebop aesthetic, while John Coltrane and others embarked on voyages that were frankly metaphysical. Archie Shepp was perhaps the most eloquent of the musicians who utilized the new idiom as an expession of the political/cultural movement known as Black Nationalism. Shepp's fiery tenor saxophone stylings often evoked Samson bringing down the temple, and if anyone was unimaginative enough to miss the point, Shepp also wrote songs, poems, and even plays. With time, Archie became almost mainstream in his approach, but he never gave up his tendency to fly off on unpredictable tangents while soloing. Absent from the scene for several years with embouchure problems, Shepp's recordings since have found him in increasingly confident form. On St. Louis Blues, he serves up a program of originals, standards, and blues that include some convincing vocals and demonstrate the continuing evolution of his maverick approach to the tenor. Even better is his reunion with his comrade-in-arms of the mid-'60s, trombonist Roswell Rudd. The all-star band features Grachan Moncur III, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille. The writing by the two principal members is outstanding, but even better is the improvised front-line interplay, which picks up right where it left off thirty-odd years ago. The reissue of Shepp's classic 1964 recordings with the New York Contemporary Five, featuring Don Cherry and John Tchicai, is especially welcome. These spectacular tracks share billing with some of the only early recordings by Bill Dixon. A couple of previously unissued alternates help underline Dixon's position as one of the greatest trumpeters of the post-modern era, but it's the Shepp program that makes this release indispensable.
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