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It’s hardly a new concept to note that spirituality and jazz have long had a deep connection, whether it’s the literal joining of hands in projects like the gospel song-covering duo albums of Hank Jones and Charlie Haden, or the more abstract, but still deeply felt, work of John Coltrane. Saxophonist Archie Shepp has long elaborated on the presence of the unworldly in his music, and he continues to do so on Let My People Go, on which he’s joined by piano genius Jason Moran. Recorded live in 2017 and 2018, the record brings together traditional gospel tunes and jazz classics to pay tribute to the spirit of the music.
Between the absence of a rhythm section and a disinclination to go for the obvious raising of the roof, the pair relies on interplay and feel, showing a near-telepathic sense of how to move around each other, as well as a profound connection to the pieces they choose to include. For the traditionals “Go Down Moses” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” the 83-year-old Shepp and the 46-year-old Moran stretch out the melodies, moving at a deliberate pace that allows the pianist to comp in and around his partner’s soulful lead lines, which allows the duo to extract maximum emotion out of every note. Shepp also contributes rough-hewn but heartfelt vocals. Shepp and Moran visit the Duke Ellington catalog for “Isafan” (sonorous) and “Lush Life” (joyful, with another Shepp vocal), exposing the spiritual side of the great composer’s work (outside of his obvious nod with Black, Brown and Beige). Let My People Go closes with a relaxed, stirring version of the Thelonious Monk standard “Round Midnight.”
The album hits its highest point with one of jazz’s most ardent seekers: John Coltrane. The pair’s version of “Wise One,” from the Coltrane masterpiece Crescent, takes both musicians and listeners on a journey through heart and soul. Moran’s intense comping and deft swing encourage Shepp to ever-greater heights of saxophone expression, while the pianist himself gets a rhythmic solo worthy of standing up and shouting. With multiple generations covered in both performers and material, Let My People Go follows the spirit through the facets of direct expression to recondite transcendence, and invites the audience to witness.
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