Archie Shepp – Four For Trane (1964)

archie shepp four for trane

Tribute albums are an oddly common occurrence and all too often they’re complete failures. It takes a unique band or musician to create a masterpiece and when someone steps in to replicate genius it’s usually a catastrophe. Even worse, tributes are typically forgotten due to mediocrity or in the grand scheme of things – pointlessness. Why dedicate an entire album to someone else’s work when you could just as easily create your own music? Every so rarely though, a tribute comes around and manages to sound just as good or even better than its original. It’s a rare sight but when done effectively, a cover or tribute can be one of the more intriguing musical accomplishments.

One prime example is Four For Trane, an oft overlooked tribute crafted by a typically underestimated musician. Archie Shepp seemed to garner plenty of criticisms throughout the course of his career. He was labeled as an ineffective imitator. A waste of talent. By one particularly harsh jazz reviewer, he was even called the evil twin of John Coltrane. Tracking his career path, it’s easy to see why these critiques were so common. Unlike many avant-garde composers, Shepp began his career in free jazz – skipping the traditional growing stages. Few were able to hear him play traditional jazz or judge his skills as a normal composer. And as a result, many labeled Shepp as a purveyor of the foul and noisy “New Thing” that would soon be free jazz.

To make matters worse, Shepp wasn’t ever seen as the spiritually experimental Coltrane, the recently crazed Miles Davis or the eccentric innovator that was Ornette Coleman. Hell, he never even got the “tortured soul” label that has followed Albert Ayler to his grave. Instead, Shepp was bloodless. Evil. His highly African-ized later career may have played a part in the controversy. And the harsh vocals on some albums certainly didn’t help. But above all else, Shepp was a musician who couldn’t step out of the shadow of giants.

Four For Trane is one of those rare moments on record where most now see Shepp’s greatness. He may not be as forward-thinking or innovative some of his contemporaries – but the man clearly has some skills as a composer. The concept of Four For Trane is simple. Each track, aside from “Rufus” is a John Coltrane composition which Shepp has reinterpreted. On each track, Shepp adds his own avant-garde blues touch, sliding around awkwardly and clumsily. He twists the tracks in the strangest manner possible, as if all the notes were flattened and set off-key.

That’s essentially what Shepp does here – changes the tracks so much that they’re uncomfortable – but keeps them close enough that the tune is recognizable. While many other genres could see warping another’s tracks as an insult, this is a bold and fitting tribute to a legend. The forever experimental Coltrane pushed his own compositions to the brink so seeing his prodigy do the same seems touching.

The evil twin theory feels oddly accurate right from the beginning on Four For Trane. Looking at the cover and something about this seems so menacing. Shepp sits calmly on a set of steps, puzzling with a pipe in hand. Coltrane lurks sullenly in the background, eyes pointed upwards and almost away from the camera. He seems on edge, almost possessed in a way. It’s one of the oddest covers I’ve seen in jazz and I still can’t wrap my head around whether Coltrane’s ominous glare was a purposeful decision or a result of a poor photoshoot. Regardless, it’s reflective of the music inside – off-putting and hellish.

The re-make of “Syeeda’s Song Flute” kicks the album off and it’s a remarkable mood setter. You’d think one of Coltrane’s most famous compositions would be easily recognizable but it’s been twisted and tweaked so much that it takes a moment to even notice. Drums pound menacingly, bass flies around incomprehensibly – and Shepp’s sax slinks around appallingly. It’s as if he warps the tracks beyond comprehension, until the main melody comes around makes the track barely recognizable.

The tracks feel wrong at times. “Mr Syms” takes a cut from Coltrane Plays the Blues and transforms it into a sultry, jagged affair. The traditional swing remains, driving the track along in upbeat fashion – but the sax playing is filled with reedy touches and harsh squeaks. It sounds like it could be part of a soundtrack to a detective movie at times but the occasional avant-garde embellishments ensure it’s more of a march than a happy-go-lucky dance.

The album’s only original composition, “Rufus (Swung His Face At Last To The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped)” is perhaps the standout. In addition to boasting a crazy title, it’s a pretty wild, free flowing track. The rhythm section drones on in double time, providing splashes of anxiety and energy. It’s an almost Ornette Coleman-esque feeling – each musician has their own specific speed and melodic base but they each come together to create a unifying picture. Shepp spends most of the time improvising in whispery tones, squeaking honking and disappearing as the track continues on. At some point the track completely falls apart, leaving only the drum/bass to keep the track moving along at warp speed. The band comes together out of nowhere to end the track on an awkward but unified note. One of the most fascinating compositions in jazz.

The traditionally beautiful ballad “Naima” even gets warped in hellish fashion, as Shepp and company drag the song through the mud. It’s clunky and aggravating, as the band twists such a gorgeous track in unimaginable ways, adding a harsh blues inflection. Moments of peace shine through in the awkwardness but it feels like a mirror image rather than a straightforward tribute. 

At the end of the day, that’s what makes the album so successful and intriguing. Four For Trane is a tribute album but not in any traditional sense of the word. Shepp interprets the tracks in his own ways – but he adds such an unusual twist that the tunes are barely recognizable. They feel equal part his own creation and Coltrane’s. They teeter on the edge of ownership and it’s hard to tell if you should give Trane credit for his classic tracks or Shepp more for his absurd reinterpretations. It’s this balanced approach that ensures Four For Trane is a successful reinterpretation. Archie Shepp may have well been John Coltrane’s evil twin with the sounds produced on this album – but it lead to some damn creative music.

 

Author: Charlie

Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him eating fish tacos or cruising through Balboa.

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