At 83, Archie Shepp has covered about as much ground as one possibly can in the vast and sometimes incongruous universe of jazz. An early trailblazer in avant garde and free jazz in the ’60s, he proved a prolific force early on, with uniquely progressive works that balanced melody and exploration, such as The Magic of Ju-Ju and The Way Ahead. In the ’70s he turned his attention toward soul jazz on Cry of My People and the politically driven gospel-funk of Attica Blues, and just last year collaborated with Raw Poetic and Damu the Fudgemunk on the jazz-rap fusion sound of Ocean Bridges, never going more than a few years in between without finding some new musical terrain to tread upon. Even as he begins his seventh decade of releasing music, the jazz legend continues to find new ground to uncover, new depths of feeling and soul to tap into and transmit through pure sonic expression.
Pianist Jason Moran is 40 years Shepp’s junior, but the two engage in a natural and profoundly affecting musical conversation on their new collaboration Let My People Go. The 1,000-foot-view of the album is a soulful set of ballads and improvisations between one generation’s musical master and another. Though they were each born in a different era, the language they speak is a common one, a dialect of deeply soulful emotional expression and the complex gray area between mellifluous melody and total sonic freedom.
Moran and Shepp are the only two musicians on Let My People Go, this collaboration born after the two shared the stage together at a number of performances in 2017 and 2018. That stark, simple approach only serves to create more tension in these recordings, and the addition of a rhythm section on sublime moments such as the profound rumble of spiritual “Go Down Moses” would feel unnecessary, almost disruptive. The two musicians harness something mysterious and intense, as if the spirit were moving through them. That tension takes different form on “He Cares,” in which Moran’s graceful melodies provide a calm, even soothing counterpoint to Shepp’s piercing leads. And though their take on the Thelonious Monk-penned standard “Round Midnight” is perhaps as close to a straightforward ballad as any of these tracks come, Shepp still strays enough outside the lines, providing a proper amount of unpredictability and dissonance to shed light on a song that’s been performed and recorded possibly thousands of times.
No moment here is quite as affecting or simply beautiful as opener “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a traditional spiritual given a haunting and delicate rendition that allows each musician his space to deliver a standout performance that never strays far from the somber yet hopeful tone of the song. It’s a breathtaking moment of synchronicity between two musicians from different generations, conversing with a moment of profundity in traditional Black music from more than a century ago. “Motherless Child” is an intimate performance that speaks louder than its decibels, celebrating tradition and building upon it as well. It’s also a great moment between two friends and collaborators, making something transcendent out of the simple idea of a shared love of music and each other’s company.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.