It’s easy to tell when you are in the presence of a master, as it was on an early February evening when NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp serenaded a full house for the All-Star Tribute to John Coltrane at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Shepp, a saxophonist, composer and activist, qualified his role in the tribute as he revealed his deep ties to Coltrane, considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.
“John Coltrane was born in 1926 and I was born in 1937,” the octogenarian musician recalled during the Feb. 10 show. “I always admired him, and when I was starting out, I went and heard him at the Red Rooster in Philadelphia.”
The rest is history, and Shepp and Coltrane would cross paths numerous times over the span of their stellar careers. This productive and creative relationship resulted in collaborations that have become jazz classics.
Shepp ultimately ended up being one of the musicians who played on Coltrane’s last recordings, “Ascension” (quartet plus six horns and bass) in 1966 and “New Thing at Newport” (a live album split with Shepp) from the same year. Coltrane died in 1967 of liver cancer at age 41.
The all-stars assembled for this memorable and mesmerizing concert included trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, Darryl Hall on bass, Nasheet Waits (son of legendary percussionist Frederick Waits) on drums, French vocalist Marion Rampal and Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, on piano.
Launching directly into the depths of Coltrane’s more eclectic tunes, Shepp opened up with “Syeeda’s Song Flute” from the legendary album “Giant Steps.” He continued the flow of bebop jazz, a trend that he and Coltrane were instrumental in establishing in the 50s and 60s with other iconic Coltrane compositions “Cousin Mary,” “Naima.”
A sentimental rendition of “My One and Only Love,” which Coltrane recorded with renowned vocalist Johnny Hartman in 1963, mellowed the pace. Shepp employed the smooth and emotive vocals of Rampal on the classic torch song, as well as his own spoken-word opus, “Blasé.”
The recognition of Coltrane’s mastery of ballads continued with Shepp referencing Coltrane’s historic 1963 recording with Duke Ellington.
“I wish Coltrane had recorded this next song with Ellington,” Shepp said, interspersing his own personal stories and memories of the influential jazz musician between songs. “He didn’t, but I wish he had.”
The ensuing rendition of “Prelude to a Kiss” presented a moment that will go down in jazz history as Shepp breathily embraced the Ellington classic on the sax, then laid the shiny instrument aside gently. The audience was treated to a rare and poignant vocal treat as Shepp sang the lyrics to the romantic ballad, a fitting overture ahead of Valentine’s Day.
With virtuosic solos by ElSaffar, Moran and Shepp punctuating the evening, the jazz lovers’ cup was full.
Shepp also looked back into the historical roots of jazz with a demonstration of “Hambone,” a unique African-American practice of percussion using only the body, which he explained was often the only instrument available to enslaved Africans.
Closing out the concert, Shepp treated the enthusiastic audience to some of his own compositions, “Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones),” inspired by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s film, and “Blues for Brother George,” a tribute to revolutionary activist leader George Jackson, who was killed in 1971.