One look at this bill is enough to make any informed listener check the ingredients in the cold medicine he took the night before. What is Archie Shepp, saxist and former black-power firebrand, doing onstage with Mark Isham, new-cool trumpeter and New Age-inspired film composer? They’ve come together as part of Steppenwolf’s “Traffic” series, which makes a point of setting up improbable inter- and intradisciplinary forays–and has an impressive success rate. In the mid-60s Shepp moved to the forefront of the jazz avant-garde, where his gruff and throaty tenor-sax exclamations and gift for theatricality (he studied dramatic literature in college) informed his fresh perspective on the extramusical sounds of Albert Ayler and the romanticism of John Coltrane’s epic solos. Shepp’s interpretive abilities have grown steadily since, offsetting an equally steady decline in his chops; his most recent recordings offer statements more of faith than prowess, but succeed on those terms. Trumpeter Isham debuted in the early 80s, contributing his moody tone poems to the band led by pianist Art Lande. He then worked with Brian Eno and Van Morrison, as well as Charles Lloyd and Pharoah Sanders, before composing the terrific film scores he’s best known for: Never Cry Wolf, A River Runs Through It, and most recently Afterglow. You’ve probably heard improvisation described as “immediate composition,” but during a panel discussion at the just-concluded convention of the International Association of Jazz Educators, Isham stood that idea on its head, calling composition “very slow improvisation.” This pretty well describes his organic film scores, but in his careful trumpet work, Isham etches his fine lines like a lapidary. At press time, the schedule called for a trio set by Shepp, bassist Malachi Favors, and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar, followed by a duo of Isham, on electronics in addition to trumpet, and guitarist Peter Manau, his partner in the defunct art-rock band Group 87. Each set will conclude with all five playing together. Monday, 7:30 PM, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; 312-335-1650.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Lewi.