Extraordinarily, Archie Shepp hadn’t played Ronnie Scott’s in 44 years. Club boss Simon Cooke casually dropped this in as he introduced the band.

Only six years before Shepp’s last visit, Fire Music, straight from the annals of jazz history, an album dedicated to Malcom X, had been released as had that same year, Shepp sharing the sides with John Coltrane, New Thing at Newport.

Speaking of “new thing” and “fire music,” terms that ever since have became identified with a wide swathe of free-jazz, Shepp was one of the beating hearts of the seething revolutionary spirit of jazz of the day. As Amiri Baraka put it in poetic form: “We need magic/now we need the spells, to raise up/return, destroy, and create.” In a sense nothing has really changed despite the surface trappings and decay of living, the different vocabulary reflective of the passage of time.

Like long-time band members drummer Steve McCraven and pianist Tom McClung Shepp was formally dressed, but sharp as possible, Monk might have advised, wearing a trilby and well tailored suit dressed like a jazzman from an old movie based on fact. Only the bespectacled double bassist Wayne Dockery was hatless as he slowly moved to his place at the back of the Ronnie’s stage not long after support band Tom Cawley’s piano trio Curios had left the stage delivering an often times tenderly elegiac set.

Now 78, the music digging deep into jazz tradition, the spirit undimmed, Shepp began with his tribute to bebop pianist Elmo Hope a tune called ‘Hope 2,’ McClung soft and tactile in accompaniment, the Bud Powell-like musical vocabulary instantly conveyed, Dockery deft and knowing making me think of the faraway era-evocative sound of Henry Grimes.

Shepp with his beak-like embouchure and tendency to quote bits of tunes in old school bebopper fashion (trawling ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’ fleetingly, say, or later ‘Everything Happens to Me’ among the borrowings), his emotional sound on the saxophone full of feverish runs, tonal drifts diving to tease out different registers, the elegant smears, reedy squeaks and pitch battles part of a don’t give a damn attitude very much still intact on a set he’s played versions of possibly a hundred times with a band that knows his every move.

Sitting on the stool and taking his tenor sax off to lay alongside his straight horn soprano he threw back his head to look directly at someone in the audience as he proceeded to take the microphone to croon Bob Russell’s lyrics to Ellington’s ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,’ a creamy baritone, the theatrical enunciation with its vibrato whirring and winding winning the song over to his unique way.

Switching to soprano sax at times, on ‘Steam’, a song that dates back to a 1970s live album, he played it in a tender tribute to a cousin who was killed in a street fight, a funny little doodly phrase or two offsetting the seriousness of the subject, the power of the loss cloaked in lightness.

The band swung a good deal, McCraven, his face full of smiles and ecstatic looks as he steered the band uptempo or leading it by the bap-bap hand down to the trot of the blues. McClung’s feathery touch summoned boogie-woogie a little later on, an antique delight, providing neat support to Shepp on the latter’s blues ‘Trippin’,’ Shepp cynical about modern technology in the fax and phone-sceptical lyrics bellowing some of the lines to stir the place out of any potential stupor and later more of the same mischief this time complete with raucous, saltier accents on a Bessie Smith tribute.

Best of the vocal pieces was the Monk ballad Jon Hendricks wrote the lyrics to, a song of regret called ‘Ask Me Now’ the busy club all a hush among the sounds of knives and forks on plates and surefooted choreography of hovering, ever watchful, waitresses. “Once you said you loved me/Placed no one above me/Prayed for me to make that vow/What dumb thing did I say/So busy being blasé/ How I wish you’d ask me now.” Most people stood to applaud at the end, it was the natural thing to do for the return of a prodigal.

Archie Shepp at Ronnie Scott’s

Photo: Benjamin Amure