Archie Shepp / Bill Dixon Quartet: “Somewhere”

A friend recently drew my attention to this piece:

• Personnel:

Tenor saxophone:  Archie Shepp;
Trumpet:  Bill Dixon;
Bass:  Don Moore;
Drums:  Paul Cohen.

• Commentary:

First, here’s something from musicologist/saxophonist Ekkehard Jost, quoted from his book, Free Jazz (1974), by YouTube poster postmeback:

“On this Shepp-Dixon LP one striking interpretation stands apart from all the others: the rendition of a hit tune from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story.’ Actually, the fact that Shepp and Dixon took, of all things, ‘Somewhere’ as a basis for improvisation is not at all surprising. (Many jazz greats have shown a special liking – at which some of their listeners have shaken their heads in disbelief – for rather hackneyed tunes. We need only recall Miles Davis’ ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’, Monk’s ‘Just a Gigolo’, or Colemans’ ‘Embraceable You’.) What *is* astounding is what Shepp and Dixon do with ‘Somewhere.’ They play the tune nice and straight, without giving it the remotest semblance of a jazz piece by rhythmic recasting. The result is heightened banality, with a strong touch of irony. This underplayed humour becomes even more evident in Shepp’s chorus. Sticking very closely to the thematic material in his improvisation, he adds occasional growl flourishes which take the mickey out of the tune, while at the same time confirming its insignificance.”

Second, here are the thoughts of postmeback him- (or her?) self: 

“Jost’s argument here recalls LeRoi Jones’ famous description of John Coltrane’ deconstruction of banal showtunes (‘My Favorite Things’, ‘Chim Chim Cheree’) as aggressive signifying practice. What both Jost and Jones neglect, of course, is the possibility that musicians actually had a fondness for these tunes; hence their puzzling (to white European critics) recurrence. Of course, whenever Shepp takes on a piece like this (at least in his 60s days – the deployment of old standards and blues from the 70s on becomes part of a historical tribute project, maintaining and paying homage to a particular tradition, with little sense of irony), one is unsure as to the play between ‘sincerity’ and subversive, sardonic humour: certainly, his takes on Ellington are not designed to mock, and even his version of the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ seems designed more to take the music back to its Brazilian roots, as part of a reclamation of colonized culture (viz. the Tropacalia movement, or Shepp’s own use of South American tinges on ‘There’s a Trumpet In My Soul’) with a rougher and more defiant (though still very much woozily emotional) edge – reclaiming bossa nova from Stan Getz, perhaps… Shepp has famously declared himself to be “a sentimentalist”, and it is precisely that combination of declamatory emotional playing, out of Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, with a rough and sometimes jolting bark and bite, that gives this music its unstable and multi-dimensional power: a refusal to occupy only one emotional territory, to be ‘read’ and contained in one particular category – the ability to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve while carrying a knife up that sleeve at the same time, if that analogy makes any sense. There’s a sense here, it must be said, of the band deliberately reining themselves in for the melodic statements, allowing themselves little eruptions at the tune’s climax, which eventually burst out in Shepp’s solo, only to die back down again – a kind of implied, simmering discord all the more powerful for being only occasionally and briefly emergent.”

Finally, some of my own thoughts: 

This may be reading too much into things, but Shepp and Dixon are both African-Americans, so of course, as outsiders, they’d be attracted to a song with lyrics like: “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us…” (read full lyrics of here).  Also, “Somewhere” is taken from West Side Story , which was composed by Leonard Bernstein, who was both Jewish and Gay, so doubly an outsider (plus he was totally fuckin brilliant, which probably makes him thrice and outsider), however “establishment” the position he occupied in the world of music.  Add to this the fact that the lyricist of “Somewhere” (and of the entirety of West Side Story), Stephen Sondheim, is also Jewish and Gay (plus pretty damned brilliant himself), which adds another dimension to the outsiderness.  On top of all that, there’s the fact that West Side Story deals extensively with ethnic strife.

Also, the music of West Side Story is heavily influenced by Jazz, and makes extensive use of Lydian Mode, which is the basis of Jazz-based music theorist and composer George Russell‘s book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal OrganizationWest Side Story also derives much of its rhythmic language from Jazz.  Further, the music Bernstein put together for West Side Story plays with and expands (one might even say gently and subtly subverts…) the conventions of the Great American Songbook – something Jazz musicians have been doing from the start, though in their own way.  So, whatever their differences, it’s entirely possible that Shepp and Dixon could have sensed in Bernstein and Sondhiem a couple of kindred spirits.

For me, whatever validity Jost’s and postmeback’s interpretations may have (and I think they’ve got plenty, but more on that some other time…), this interpretation of “Somewhere” comes across as a song of yearning, which is how Bernstein and Sondheim obviously conceived of it, but mixed with heart-wrenching anguish – a combination that strikes me as more than appropriate.  And, to expand a bit on, and/or paraphrase, something postmeback said above, the expression of anguish in this version of “Somewhere” is rendered all the more poignant by its understatement.

Three big questions still remain in my mind – and perhaps in that of the readership(?) – all of which are begged or otherwise raised by the commentary by Jost and postmeback above, and to which I can, for the moment, give only the most provisional of answers:

  • First, does “Somewhere” really  deserve to be categorized as “hackneyed” and “banal”, and thrown in among such songs as “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, “Just a Gigolo”, “Embraceable You”, “My Favorite Things”, and “Chim Chim Cheree”?  (Provisional answer: Hardly!)
  • Second, do any of these songs truly merit the monikers “hackneyed” and “banal” in the first place?  (Provisional answer: Highly doubtful…)
  • Finally, what is the nature and cause of the fascination of so many Jazz greats with so many such songs, whatever their quality?  (Provisional answer: This is a matter for huge and lengthy, though very interesting, speculation, and worthy of a real doorstopper of a book, which would have to address the relationship between art music, folk music, popular music, street music, church music, and much else.)

I’d love to address these three questions in greater detail, but all that, sadly, will have to wait for some other time, some other post – and/or maybe for that real doorstopper of a book, should I live so long…

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