Much as I enjoy a good cover song, I don’t own a lot of cover albums. Usually it’s a little too much of a good thing, but Day 6 of the #mayvinylchallenge demanded either a cover or a sample, so I dug around until I realized that from a covers perspective jazz really fits the bill: artists are constantly covering each other’s material, re-interpreting, extending and improvising off of melodies and chordal/modal progressions. All of which led me to the work of Archie Shepp, whose debut as a solo leader (he had a few co-lead records with Bill Dixon and Lars Gullin) for Impulse! was his homage to the saxophone king, Four For Trane.
Comprised of four Coltrane covers (three from his classic Giant Steps) and one original, it’s a great opportunity to not only hear Shepp in his early career, but to get a sense of how someone makes something so unique and singular into their own thing. If you know Coltrane, you probably have the main theme of opener “Syeeda’s Song Flute” burned into your brain. Shepp takes that theme and gives it a rough, city edge. The punctuation of the notes differ, and there’s a greater emphasis on the rhythm: the drumming by Charles Moffett is fantastic. Whereas the original is dazzled by the sheets of sound Coltrane would come to be known for, there’s more of a sense of place when Shepp takes the reins of the arrangements – it should be noted with the full backing of Coltrane, whom he would come to work with over the course of the next few years.
“Mr. Syms” comes from Coltrane Plays the Blues, and Shepp gives it a great sense of space, really using the wide panning between him and his brass players: Alan Shorter on flugelhorn and Roswell Rudd on trombone, not to mention John Tchicai on alto sax. It’s a reflective piece, the instruments coming together and drifting apart as the song moves forward. From there Side 2 brings us back to Giant Steps, and the 1-2 combination of “Cousin Mary” and “Niema” (assuming it’s misspelled on my UK/Jasmine reissue from the 80s), here somewhat unrecognizable from Coltrane’s more subdued version. Both covers are stellar, bringing a fresh view of the songs in the way Shepp overlaps the notes of theme between instruments. Finally there is the original “Rufus” whose full title (Rufus, Swung His Face At Last To The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped) shows the political and race overtones his music would continue to reflect for decades to come. It’s the most propulsive track on the album, and closes out a true classic of the genre.