Many years from now, when we take stock of the beautiful moments in our lives, everyone who was in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on Sunday night will remember Archie Shepp singing “Prelude to a Kiss.”
The legendary tenor saxophonist has been known to grab the microphone for a tune or two on his record and concert dates. He even put out a full vocal album in 1997. But after an hour of Shepp’s distinctively low-toned, rough-edged horn honk, hearing him sing Duke Ellington’s ballad in that same low tone and rough edge still felt like a revelation — as if a door had opened and an undiscovered landscape was behind it. If his tone wasn’t entirely precise, that was beside the point. Or so said the standing ovation that followed.
Shepp’s performance was billed as a tribute to his mentor, John Coltrane, and to a degree that was true. The 81-year-old National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master led his powerhouse quintet (trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Darryl Hall and drummer Nasheet Waits) in three of the tunes from his classic 1964 album “Four for Trane.” He revived his old interpretation of “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” complete with displaced rhythms, but again reinvented “Naima,” he and Moran bringing off an eerie exchange that made the song quietly devastating. Shepp also brought out the vocalist Marion Rampal for “My One and Only Love,” a standard that Coltrane recorded with singer Johnny Hartman in 1963. (This performance was a marvel, with Hall playing gorgeous countermelodies behind Rampal’s robust, throaty vocal.)
But Shepp had things of his own to say. Rampal joined in on his noirish jazz poem “Blasé.” He also played three pieces from his 1965 signature album, “Fire Music” — including “Prelude to a Kiss” (recorded as an instrumental), though he introduced that one as a song he wished Coltrane and Ellington had played on their 1962 collaboration. The other two, “Hambone” and “Los Olvidados,” both took on epic sweeps. “Hambone,” based on the African American tradition of slap-percussion music (which he and Waits demonstrated), became a ride through the black musical tradition that followed, opening with bebop language and barreling into gospel, modal music, a “Night Train”-quoting soul-jazz groove and a raw free-jazz performance. “Los Olvidados” progressed like a soap opera, one scene cutting into the seemingly unrelated next one — highlights being jet-speed free form and mournful march sections with beautiful solos from Shepp and a wah-wah-muted ElSaffar. The latter also shone on the free-blowing sections, peppering them with flurries that showed how deeply he knew the trumpet vocabulary.
Shepp’s Paris residence, combined with his “out there,” avant-garde reputation, made this Concert Hall appearance unexpected. Moran, the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, thrives on such unlikely events, but even he seemed thrown by this one. He summed up the evening when, after the band encored on Shepp’s “Blues for Brother George Jackson,” he took the microphone and shouted incredulously, “Archie Shepp is in the Kennedy Center! Archie Shepp is in the Kennedy Center!”