Archie Shepp & Jason Moran
Let My People Go
Archie Shepp is 83, a living legend of jazz, a musical polymath and star of one of the best hip-hop albums of last year too! Jason Moran, some 30+ years younger than Shepp is one of the great modern jazz pianists – steeped in tradition (his tribute to Fats Waller is a fascinating re-create) and yet embracing of all musical styles that have stemmed from it. So it’s a perfect pairing to have these two basically in musical conversation.
Unbelievably, Let My People Go, is the first time the two have recorded together – it’s taken from two live shows (Paris in 2017 and Germany in 2018) and released only now.
There is something so joyful about hearing this – every note is brought with emotion, with wisdom, the teachings of two of the greats; on their shoulders the memories of so many players they’ve served with or been inspired by. So when you hear Shepp’s sax you think of Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders in the blowing-session moments and Johnny Hodges when we get to the ballads. With Moran it’s Waller and Ellington and Bill Evans too – but perhaps especially Wynton Kelly; just the way the piano is forever dancing but never desperate to have the flashiest moves.
Both instrumentalists speak both through and with silence – the pauses, the spaces, the phrasing and framing of these songs is as exquisite as any of the notes written and played.
Shepp has a few spots at the microphone too, his voice a deep gospel burr on the opening soul-cry, Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. Moran’s piano sets up the song, somber and wistful, tears are evoked in the opening strains of the song – when Shepp’s saxophone enters it’s like hearing Billie Holiday pouring her soul into Strange Fruit or indeed Mahalia Jackson singing this very song. In the final section of the song’s deep harrow we hear the repeated title phrase and it could be Todd Duncan in the original Porgy & Bess production.
Go Down Moses is another deep gospel soul-cry, this time it’s Shepp’s horn that states the song’s intentions by opening atop a low rumble of piano keys. Political statements have always been a part of both artists’ work – but perhaps particularly Shepp. His Attica Blues for instance, or with Max Roach on The Long March Part 1 – and what do we say here, now? It’s wonderful to hear the consistency of his tone and the commitment to issues and wanting change. It’s so sad that we still need it, that we perhaps hear it but don’t fully take it on board.
So there’s this gospel and political somberness that fills this record – is the third voice on the recordings; a shadow forever present. It’s haunting and beautifully so. And then there’s the balladry – which is equally exquisite. The centre-hinge for me is the one-two of Lush Life and ‘Round Midnight. Again, Lush Life is good enough for its six minutes of instrumental but then Shepp comes in and sings with such deep, knowing resonance about life being awful and tough – and when he says the last year was hard you have to remember this was recorded in 2018 and written many, many years before that. To hear it in 2021 is to instantly think back to the year most of us just made it through. Such is our insular thinking, eh?
Like you, I’ve probably heard a hundred versions of ‘Round Midnight, and most days I’m happy just to stop at Monk tackling it in whatever way he felt like on the night. But, man o man, this version. This version just kills me. Again, each of these giants has a chance to slay – the lyrical flow of Archie’s horn playing just wafts and drifts into the pool of Moran’s piano. I want to listen to this song for far longer than its 9 minutes. I want to listen to it always.
Let My People Go is a big album of big emotions, big songs, big (but subtle) playing from huge talents. It transcends the genre. It isn’t just a jazz album – but it’s also one of the very best jazz albums you might hear this year (or any) – it’s like a musical conversation, a reunion, tear-stained and beautiful.