ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Saxophonist Archie Shepp and Pianist Jason Moran speak from the heart through a collection of spirituals and jazz standards.
Archie Shepp is a new artist to me, even though he is a vastly distinguished saxophonist with over a half century of ground-breaking albums behind him. The apex of his work, Attica Blues comfortably shares the same bandwidth as What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, which was released the year before it. As I listen to his latest album, Let My People Go, recorded in duet with pianist Jason Moran, I am learning a bit deeper how one facet of what makes jazz so powerful is its democratic, conversational nature. Whereas both classical and rock music tend towards harmonised, unified statements from a band or composer, jazz talks like people do. At its most basic, jazz groups pick a subject for conversation and then each player takes a turn to speak. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s recent album Griot: This is Important develops this idea further as tracks are composed in response to clips from interviews with jazz performers.
Let My People Go is a fine, conventional jazz album. Shepp’s reputation for being an avant-garde radical is largely put away on these tracks. What is presented is a collection of spirituals and standards recorded live in Europe. The standard of playing is superlative throughout and anyone who enjoys the sound of classic mid-twentieth century acoustic jazz would find much to enjoy.
Archie Shepp has the greater reputation, but this is not a solo project that credits his accompanist. Let My People Go is a conversation between equal partners and many of the albums best moments belong to Jason Moran. Although Moran can play light and charming, his best work broods, almost mourning, sometimes thundering over chords on ‘He Cares’ and ‘Sometimes I Feel…’. Arguably, the standout solo of the album is his contribution to ‘Wise One’, where Moran tears through his keyboard ferociously. Shepp’s playing is equally joyous and beautiful throughout. Madison Bloom recently commented that Shepp, ‘doesn’t play the saxophone so much as he sings through it’, and I struggle to describe his work more faithfully or beautifully than that.
From the first listen, it feels safe to deduce that the point of placing a spotlight on traditional spirituals in 2021 is to make a political statement of how little has changed in race relations in America (and Britain). That clearly is essential to what this album is about but Let My People Go does not feel like jazz as protest music. This album does not stand at the barricade or the pulpit, it is not evangelistic; it speaks as if each track were a course in a meal, or a round of drinks at a bar.
Let My People Go doesn’t feel at all like it is about the business of persuading strangers. It is more like friends talking, encouraging, strengthening and seeing each other more fully. It may be strange to consider these types of conversation as political but relaxed and intimate honesty allows politics, race, religion, sex, hopes and fears, the blues, old stories all to find a way back into the open. All of that shapes and sustains identity and worldview. This kind of chemistry and content is found on Let My People Go, which is how ‘Round Midnight’ sits comfortably alongside ‘Go Down Moses’. By including the spiritual dimension, Let My People Go sits with the hope that dialogue about politics, sex and all the rest shared before God might become translated into holy prayer.
It may be strange to consider these types of conversation as political because their impact often goes unseen. But taken seriously, these conversations protect from cliché and lay roots that hold and let us know we are not alone. They compost the ground, preparing for another re-generation and resurgence of growth. They sustain, carry and provide structure for the long, slow haul of political change.