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Archie Shepp was handed the free-jazz mantle directly from John Coltrane. After contributing tenor sax to Coltrane’s quintessential “Ascension” recording in 1965, Shepp went on to record his own series of visceral works in a similar revolutionary style. With a group of like-minded players, Shepp continued Coltrane’s disruption of harmonic and rhythmic standards in search of jazz’s ultimate expressive potential. For that alone, he is a key figure in jazz history. Additionally, Shepp focused attention, using both music and words, on jazz as an African-American art form. Over the years, he has articulated his ideas in many ways. He gave his songs titles such as “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” and “Attica Blues,” while also producing plays, writing poetry and delivering fiery polemics about injustice, racism and freedom. At times, he seemed like the conscience of the jazz world.

His overtly political stance, though, never interfered with his music-making. Since the 1960s, he has steadily released recordings with hardly a year’s break. Though he has gravitated from free jazz to a more traditional sound, his sax still cuts through all pretense with sharp expressiveness. He may sound more “listenable” these days on recordings such as last year’s excellent “Deja-Vu,” but his tonal quality and flow of ideas remain forceful. It would be easy to say he has lost a little of his old fire, but perhaps he has also eased into a more reflective approach that relishes a controlled tempo and a thoughtful elaboration of melodies.

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