Maacha Deubner: Bessonnitsa

Soprano Maacha Deubner, whose voice has graced such masterpieces as Giya Kancheli’s Exil, folds her operatic pleats into the tapestry of the KAPmodern-Ensemble in a program of latter-day chamber music. Bessonnitsa is Russian for “insomnia” and points both to an overarching theme and to Valentin Silvestrov’s eponymous piece for soprano and piano. Reminiscent of Francis Poulenc’s songs, it is the album’s crown jewel. Its flowing sense of time and evocation is like a storm turning into ocean and touching the shore with its final breath. One can also trace a line of continuity between this and Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point for soprano and piano (1979), a set of temporally brief yet spiritually far-reaching evocations of flesh and word in a self-shadowing mode. Deubner navigates them as one might tell the story of their life.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos for soprano and violoncello (1985) begins with the solo voice, floating yet carrying the weight of a monument carved in time. “My soul is a Sphinx,” she sings as if to give that monument a name, setting the immaterial self upon an altar of ruins and unfinished verses. The words come from writer Rimma Dalos, whose texts have also been lovingly set by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Gubaidulina’s approach, however, is never so compact, as proven by the solo cello commentary that follows.

Most of the pieces here belong to the mind and heart of Elena Firsova, for whom the poetry of Ossip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is a touchstone. Sorrows (Tristia II), op. 145 (2013) carries over the same scoring from Gubaudulina’s contribution and bears a dedication to Deubner. The music is at once a reflection of and counterpoint to the poetry, which looks deep into the night to uncover its many layers of shadow:

Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand.

Such words point not to dialogue but to prayers walking parallel paths. They can see but not hear each other, ever caught in cycles of pain and healing.

In Towards the Starlight for soprano and string quartet (2017), receiving its world premiere recording, we have a different side of Mandelstam. Whereas in Sorrows he praised the uninterrupted life, now we get:

I hate the starlight’s
monotonous spectrum.

Such is the duality of consciousness. In the second movement, “How slow the horses go,” we encounter a more sorrowful glow. The poet sees things he cannot see, speaks of things that have no voice. Cello and soprano engage in subliminal communication as delicate pizzicato and high strains give way to flowers of darkness. In the final movement, lyrical self-deprecation:

To read only children’s books,
To cherish only children’s thoughts.

Yet another facet of Mandelstam catches the light of From the Voronezh Notebooks, op. 121 (2009). This cantata, also for soprano and string quartet, moves into organic textures following a nervous prelude. From the raindrops dripping from leaves in “Greens” and the pouncing delicacy of “A Cat” to the frantic trajectories of “In the Sky” and the final “Madness,” fear is never far behind. Deubner expresses these states of mind with lucid projection.

Peppered among Firsova’s more substantial assemblies are three monologues, of which Starry Flute, op. 56 (1992) is the most intimate. Dedicated to the late Aurèle Nicolet, it captures the brilliant flutist’s penchant for extended techniques, each of which naturally extends the breath. Sustained notes float as if made of vapor (and indeed, that is what our life can only be), so that by the end, we are left in stasis with memories of those enchantments now wilting in the hot sun of reality.

Taking account of these works in the aggregate, I am inclined to treat them as a face seen from different angles of light. It smiles and frowns, sleeps and awakes, screams and whispers, showing us that the continuity between states of mind is where our existence is defined.

Johannes Luley: Follow Your Heart

Guitarist-producer Johannes Luley was born and grew up in Germany before relocating to California, where he honed his craft as an in-demand touring musician and began recording other artists in his Los Angeles studio. When said studio had to close at the start of the pandemic, Luley found himself facing a professional and personal crisis that kept him from the guitar for months. In August of 2020, he resolved himself to break free from that spell and move his creative muscles again. The result is Follow Your Heart.

As the title suggests, Luley examined what moved him from within, and this led him to dip into the ECM songbook, arranging tunes by some of the label’s key figures. His band includes reed player Max Kaplan, bassist David Hughes, drummer Dicki Fliszar, and percussionist Simon Carroll. Trumpeter and flugelhornist Jonas Lindeborg plays from afar, having laid down his parts in Stockholm, though one would hardly know it by the integration of his artistry.

Luley has a fluid ability to shift between styles and influences without missing a beat, adapting instruments and treatments to suit each track. The set opens with “Yellow Fields,” from Eberhard Weber’s 1976 album of the same name. Hughes evokes the German bassist via fretless before he and Fliszar put feet to ground with gentle traction. Kaplan’s soprano lends further credence to the revival, while Lindeborg’s flugelhorn adds reflective light. Next, Luley’s 12-string pivots into Ralph Towner territory on “Brujo.” Despite hailing from 1973’s Trios/Solos with Glen Moore, the expansiveness of this version points more toward Solstice from two years later. The Bill Evans/Miles Davis classic “Blue in Green” (which has appeared on two of Towner’s albums) glows in Luley’s fireside recreation. His restraint exudes warmth at every turn. This and Kenny Wheeler’s “Heyoke” (see 1976’s Gnu High) are standouts for their free and easy spirit, drawing magic from Lindeborg and propelling Luley to skim the proverbial waters with purpose. The latter tune’s seeking qualities match the composer’s perfectly, as do the far-reaching tones of “Ostinato” from Manfred Schoof’s Scales (a 1976 rarity from ECM’s onetime sister label, JAPO). Swells from electric guitar provide the foundation for a roving gallery of impressions, ranging from Kaplan’s bass clarinet to Lindeborg’s emotional flights.

The title track cites John McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond (released in 1982 on the Elektra label) and features a crunchier sound from Luley and artful sopranism from Kaplan, while “One Melody” references Belo Horizonte (1981, Warner Bros. Records) to stratospheric effect. John Abercrombie also gets two musical mentions. “Telegram” time-travels from 1978’s Charactersand elicits the most cohesive dynamics from Luley’s group. Its nostalgic energy is only heightened by the rhythm section’s articulate drive. “Greenstreet” points to 2013’s 39 Steps and sits flush with its brethren in gentle resolve, ending the record with an embrace.

Follow Your Heart makes a welcome addition to any ECM lover’s shelf and should inspire listeners to explore Luley’s back catalog in kind. The album is available from his website here.

The Tone Poetry of Charles Lloyd

(Photo credit: Dorothy Darr)

To regard a line of improvisation in the key of Charles Lloyd is to walk a spiral from the peaceful depths of one’s soul to the chaotic terrains beyond it. The tenor saxophone with which he is most commonly associated is a scepter that sounds, in his words, “a clarion call to truth and love.” A tender warrior committed to restoration, he sees no lines of demarcation in his music:

“That wouldn’t be right for the tradition I serve. You must have your elixir, and the elixir is in sound and tone. When you’re at the feet of the Universe, she will always bless and take care of us. It’s not politicians we need but sages. Many have their hand out for something, but I try to let my heart be filled so I want for nothing. I live in awe, drunk with the music.”

Hence the moniker of his latest collective The Marvels—featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums—of whom Lloyd is at once leader and faithful servant, a vessel for languages without script. Lloyd debuted The Marvels on the 2016 album I Long To See You with special guests Norah Jones and Willie Nelson, and reconvened the band for 2018’s Vanished Gardens which featured Lucinda Williams on half the album. For his latest Blue Note release Tone Poem, Lloyd presents The Marvels without guest vocalists for the first time on a nourishing nine-course meal of spiritual food. Lloyd recalls the genesis of the group:

“I used to play at this club in Memphis, where a country band was always finishing up as we came in. Their pedal steel guitar player, Al Vescovo, fell in love with my playing, and I with his. He and I became friends, which wasn’t easy on account of the color lines. But the warmth of our friendship was pure. I eventually left for California, and we never saw each other again. Years later, I started performing with Bill Frisell—a seeker whose music, like mine, dances on many shores. On the road, between concerts, I was always reminiscing with him about this young musician from my teens. One night, he invited a pedal steel guitar player to sit in on a concert we played at UCLA’s Royce Hall. That turned out to be Greg Leisz. Hearing him brought full circle a childhood feeling of that instrument and its sonority. Thus, The Marvels were born, because what had happened was a marvel.”

Indeed, the fluid way in which Frisell and Leisz finish each other’s sentences speaks of a mastery that eschews boundaries in deference to flow. The same holds true of Lloyd’s rhythm section, which finds coherence in the absence of rules. If Harland is the heartbeat, Rogers fortifies the blood in its arteries. But how is that sound achieved?

“Don Was and the folks at Blue Note believe in me. The songs we create are my children. They come back home with me. There’s an old saying: What you’re looking for is looking for you. As the character of sound flows, the world drops away, allowing you to make a contribution. This is my offering, my inspiration and consolation. Music has always brought me that. It heals me; I hope I can heal others. Even in the wide cast of artists I’ve played with over this long life, I still have beginner’s mind. Only now, I have the benefit of experience to go along with it.”

If one were to see this album as a ship, then the album closer “Prayer” might be its dotted path across a map of time. Although the parchment on which it is marked is frayed at the edges, it has enough empty space left on it for voyages of reconciliation yet to come. The arco bass and pedal steel guitar herein constitute a longitude and latitude, while drums played by hand glow like a compass in the night. Lloyd and his crew sail forth on a raft culled from bits of nature, each ragged and sun-scorched on its own yet, in unity with others, stronger than the waves. In the midst of the vast waters of this quest stands a chain of islands that includes the album’s original title track, “Tone Poem,” which from rhythmless materials builds a gently grooving structure. Next, it swings from sonic rafters of Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Mood”)—last heard in duo with Frisell on Vanished Gardens—and on to the shimmering beaches of Bola de Nieve (“Ay Amor”) and Gabor Szabo (“Lady Gabor”). The latter tune offers a taste of Eastern airs and harks to Lloyd’s legendary performance at Montreux in 1967. Out of the primordial soup of that past, it hits the ground running as a fully formed creature—scintillating and agile. Such is the wonder of Lloyd’s playing: he is a traveler weary of the world yet unwilling to let it pass without a song in which to wrap it. He understands the vision of life as having fallen like a teardrop from a cosmic eye in need of being wiped away. And with his horn, he does just that. This music is so comfortable that it feels like a second skin.

“When I think back on my life and how long I’ve been here. Most of my heroes left long before the age I’ve attained. I am always paying homage in a dream state of bringing a better world, a universe that heals and touches. The model of the world as it exists is very primitive to me. Man’s inhumanity to man continues to cause great pain and destruction.  And yet, the fierceness of exploration stays fresh with me. I’m not here for roses. I’m still blessed and interested. The world continues to make history about generals…but my generals—Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Bird, and Trane—are lovers of the heart.”

This is especially apparent in two Ornette Coleman tunes (“Peace” and “Ramblin’”), neither of which were a part of Lloyd’s repertoire, yet which felt organically suited to the band. In both, the listener will find spirit-making sounds, all powered by the solar panel of Lloyd’s saxophone and released in melodic energy. The sense of forward motion here is phenomenally astute and something that, in these times of social distancing, crackles with a level of intimacy the pandemic has all but snuffed out.

“Some of the notes and cries you hear now on my instrument, I didn’t have as a young man. They articulate something. Then, I have these ensembles serving a higher goal. Sensitives are abundant on the planet; they just aren’t given credit for it. To be drunk while also being non-toxic and non-harmful to the world is a contribution worth making, a song worth singing.”

It’s also why poetry lingers even in the absence of words. In Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” it sings wordlessly and with a deep simplicity that needed to be explored in this context. And in the temperance of Lloyd’s own “Dismal Swamp,” it turns an individual truth into a universal one.

“I’m an archeologist and astronomer, trying to make a breakthrough. I have this dream that I’m going to melt into the music and I’ll become what it is. It’s such a beautiful gift that I’ve been given of being able to continue to explore. I pick up the instrument and I play and I can’t put it down. It takes me. I go out in nature and come home with these quantum mechanics in my heart.”

Music, because it is connecting to and opening up a spiritual purpose, brings about eternal effects, whereas everything we do in the flesh has a finite existence. But we’re so busy screaming at each other that we’ve forgotten how to sing. This is why Lloyd’s music has so much vitality: it is a gift in song form. It is a refuge.

“We speak the same heart. The heart of all hearts, we’re aligned with that. And the soul of all souls will bring us home. To be at Oneness. There are many windows into this house. You must be sincere and you must have a desire for truth, and somewhere you must have inspirations along the way, someone to guide you who knows the path. It’s incumbent upon all of us to sing that song of the infinite.”

A “dreamer of worlds” is how Lloyd describes himself. In that capacity, he offers inspiration and consolation to the named and unnamed alike. And now, with this sacred book, bound and stitched as an incantation of light, we can dream those worlds together as our own.

Tone Poem is available directly from Blue Note Records by clicking on the album cover below.

Masabumi Kikuchi: Hanamichi

Hanamichi is the final recording of Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015), a pianist whose fingers left indelible prints on many a keyboard. Produced by Sun Chung, a former ECM producer and now head of Red Hook Records (of which this is the debut release), the album drops like a stone into the ponds of our hearts. The resulting ripples take form as six tracks, yet it is in the unquantifiable rings of space between them that Kikuchi plants his notes as seeds for a crop that has outlived him. What distinguishes Kikuchi’s agricultural process is his refusal to prune away a single sunburnt leaf or dying plant. He takes care to describe those apparent imperfections as beauties in their own right because they are real, honest, and unmanufactured.

The not-quite-standard “Ramona” and the more-than-standard “Summertime” brim with such regard. The introductions to both breathe with a lived sense of geometry. Kikuchi tends to every stem like an ikebana master who works with his eyes closed. Just as the visual impact ceases to matter for one so accustomed to flowers, the sonic impact recedes for Kikuchi, who turns every contact of flesh and ivory into an emotional prelude beyond the confines of melody. His willingness and ability to capitulate to these moments come out of an understanding that intimacy has little to do with isolation but is just another name for connectivity. In the spirit of Paul Motian, the drummer with whom he played for more than two decades, the technical abilities required to evoke so much with so little are obscured. It is their shadows we encounter, if not also a hint of the light that casts them. He is the bird who flies for no other reason than to glorify the wind.

Unlike jazz players who unpack a thematic statement to expose hidden messages in even the most familiar tunes, Kikuchi reverse engineers them to unfamiliar origins. Two cases in point are his starkly different versions of “My Favorite Things.” Where the first molds nostalgia into a knotted internal dialogue of ringing chords, the second is the dream to its waking, performed in fearless slow motion. From these contemplations comes an “Improvisation,” which Kikuchi smooths into an altar for relatively percussive offerings.

“Little Abi,” a ballad he wrote for his daughter that was a cornerstone of his repertoire, concludes with a tear-inducing farewell. The pacing here is so cinematic that the listener cannot slide so much as a piece of paper between one movement and the next. How he accomplishes this while still allowing for so much breadth is unfathomable. A contradiction in words, to be sure, but an organic comfort in his sound.

To the details of said sound, Chung’s ears are lovingly matched, and Rick Kwan’s engineering seems to elucidate two inner songs for every outward one rendered. As in Kikuchi’s use of the sustain pedal, the recording team allows notes to inhale deeply before they exhale their songs into the ether. Thus, the studio functions as an extracorporeal lung—and perhaps by no metaphorical coincidence, given that the pianist had survived cancer of that very organ.

The term hanamichi (花道), literally “flower path,” is a Japanese idiom of kabuki theatrical origins that signifies an honorable end to one’s career. Listening to the session it titles, however, one could be forgiven for thinking of this as a beginning, given that final recordings are often new listeners’ entry point into the intangible wonders of great artists. Hence, the vintage Steinway on which he plays. While the family name is synonymous with world-class instruments, its literal meaning of “stone path” reveals another secret. The way of stone is an immovable trajectory from birth to death, raw and astonishing in its lack of repetition. All of which reminds us that every recording is a ghost of its creator, of whose soul we are but temporary hosts.

David Virelles: Transformación del Arcoiris

Despite, if not because of, the fact that David Virelles’ Transformación del Arcoiris was born in a time of social distancing, it feels close enough to smell the creativity in its breath. With a borderless aesthetic that pushes two hands outward for every foot planted inward, it treats the canvas of an album not as blank but as a living surface whose own imperfections must be articulated in the spirit of truth. As much an ambient sound collage as a musical object, it grinds expectation in the respective mortar and pestle of future and past until a mélange of the present reveals its fragrant spice. Playing a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer, piano and sampler and accompanied by Los Seres, a virtual percussion ensemble programmed by himself, Virelles begins the circle with “Cause and Effect,” in which the sounds of chickens activate a schism between history and its erasure. As in other tracks that follow, but especially the concluding “Fin del Cuento,” a found-sound aesthetic prevails. While there are moments of transcendence, including the sun-drenched blush of “Holy City,” there’s a sense that shadows are always lying in wait for the chance to sink their teeth into progress. It’s as if our pre-pandemic state was digital and the new normal was analog. Sensations of flesh and flora meet in “Babá la Paloma,” the tropical climate of which yields two distinct seasons. In the dry we encounter the goodness of “Tiempos” (made all the dreamier by guest Marcus Gilmore on MPC drumkit) while in the wet we inhale the spores of “De Cómo el Árbol Cantó y Bailó” as if they were life itself. Each of these requires the microscope of an ear and nowhere so magnified as in the cinematic wonder of “Babujal.” Here the piano feels like a relic in a sea of orchestral trembling. Virelles is always exploring, examining and analyzing genealogies that have lodged themselves within. This is music that does more than stand at a crossroads; rather, it ties those roads into a bow until their beginnings and endings are one and the same.

Transformación del Arcoiris is available on bandcamp.

(This review originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Lucie Vítková/James Ilgenfritz: Aging

Even in moments of clarity, one comes across rough spots that won’t seem to go away. Similarly, in times of chaos, glimpses of lucidity stand out like meteors against the night sky. In both circumstances, those anomalies often prove to be highly instructive—each a learning moment that may be cultivated only through years of introspection. Such is the humbling opportunity of opening one’s ears to the sonic constellations of Aging. This collaboration between Lucie Vítková and James Ilgenfritz places the latter’s contrabass in the former’s compositional matrix.

Across seven parts, nominally distinguished only by consecutive Roman numerals, the experience unfolds fractally: the closer one gets to an intriguing detail, the more one recognizes the supporting patterns that gave it context in the first place. And while Ilgenfritz plays his instrument with fingers and bow, Vítková’s meticulous preparations and electronic integrations allow the digital soul of its acoustic body to breathe beyond its cage. Hints of sirens resound like voices struggling against a historical silencing, as if the very weight of the past were cause for emergency. And yet, within that tautness is also hope and, perhaps, victory over the tectonic shifts of human error, made palpable when Ilgenfritz sheds his technological clothing (as in “IV”), standing naked before the mirror of time and singing for no other honor than the act itself. But then, there are passages (as in “V”) during which the bass seems barely to breathe in the stasis of self-awareness. And if the more jagged figurations articulated in “VI” jump out with contrast, it’s only because being given something to wield and interpret is a tradition to which we’ve become socially averse.

This is, perhaps, why one cannot help but hear in this grinding a way of speaking that feels even more organic to us in 2021 than when it was recorded in 2016. Wandering inside this veritable hurdy-gurdy of introspection, we cling not to the promise of escape but to the reality of knowing how much work needs to be done to listen.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Two New Releases from Marilyn Crispell

To say that pianist Marilyn Crispell, who turns 74 this month, has charted new territory would be an understatement. It would be just as accurate to say she has redrawn maps of old territory. At her hands, the keyboard leaps like a compass gleeful over its sentience, directing notes with the same force of intention that a seafarer would a ship carrying precious cargo. Whether solo or, as in the two discs presented here, in combination with others, she brings a reverent sense of space honed over decades. 

For ConcertOTO, she planetarily aligns with Eddie Prévost (drums) and Harrison Smith (bass clarinet, saxophones) for a traversal of freely rendered terrain. Recorded live in November of 2012 at London’s Café OTO, the album documents most of what went down on that stage. On the one hand, it’s a study in contrasts. “An Exploratory Introduction” opens with just that, reacting to space as much as defining it. The “Finale” balances it with forthright exposition. At many points between them, however, something powerful happens—a magical kind of coalescence that only musicians who truly listen to one another can achieve. And so, whereas “A Meditative Interlude” is a dreamy combination of pianistic icicles, moonlit bass clarinet and hand-swept drums, its quiet moments are no match for the main concert portions flanking it. In those, one will find a veritable catalog of touchpoints linking chains around the ears. In this respect, Crispell is a master collage artist. Because nothing is planned, passages of exhale make the inhalations that much tenser and wilder with possibility. Prévost is a fabulous player, never losing track of the inner thread even when he severs it while Smith treats time as a physical dimension. Their occasional exchanges in absence of piano are just as visceral. An interesting coincidence that the club’s name is homophonous with the Japanese word for “sound,” as this is a gift articulated in that very medium.

Streams pairs Crispell with Yuma Uesaka (saxophones, clarinets), whose compositions constitute the set in its entirety. If ConcertOTO was about being in the moment, then this meeting of minds is about connecting moments as one would a constellation: each piece is minimally indicative of its title and, over time, seems to take on those characteristics as if by default. If anything connects the two projects, it’s a willingness to move wherever the winds of inspiration blow—this, despite the through-written nature of every melody Uesaka offers on the altar of improvisation. Hence the beautifully contradictory atmosphere at play. The title track and “Torrent” are exactly as they should be. The former feels like water that pools and eddies when blocked by fallen branches; the latter like a cannonball dive. Further dichotomies of description abound in the prophetic tinge of “Meditation,” in which a bass clarinet courts the piano’s deepest growls. Elsewhere, dialogues are pushed to extremes, each infused with equal parts catch and release, before funneling into “Ma / Space,” for which the duo welcomes Chatori Shimizu on the shō (Japanese mouth organ) for an added touch of sunlight through branches.

(This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Charlie Rauh: The Silent Current From Within

If Life must be so full of care,
Then call me soon to Thee;
Or give me strength enough to bear
My load of misery.
–Anne Brontë, “If This Be All”

In the soft yet indelible wake of The Bluebell, an acoustic solo album articulated around echoes of the Brontë sisters, guitarist Charlie Rauh reclaims a kindred power in his latest musical web, The Silent Current From Within, now joined by vocalist Ess See, drummer Ken Coomer, and bassist Jonah Kraut. Spinning his radii of inspiration via sister Christina Rauh Fishburne, Canadian poet Anne Carson, and Anne Brontë, whose words take nonverbal form through the capture spiral of these expanded readings, Rauh positions the listener as the anchor point of a pattern that has left its glyphs of fatigue on all of us in these times of social isolation.

The project at hand emerged when Coomer reached out to Rauh for a long-distance collaboration, adding Kraut for good measure as the songs took on new life. Thus were born three pieces around themes found in the work of Fishburne and Carson, each lending its own shade to the protracted dawn that is the album as a whole. The brush of a morning breeze is audibly felt in “A Marked And Mended Sign,” over the course of which the sun raises its eyebrow just high enough to clear a distant mountain range, while “Until The Charm Fades” crafts its light into a pair of hands pulling vegetation from the soil. “As Simple As Water” nourishes that crop with emotional nutrients, opening the sky like a heart primed to receive wisdom unfettered by the acrobatics of dead philosophies. Likewise, in these contexts, Kraut’s bassing and Coomer’s drumming don’t merely add to Rauh’s guitar, but rather draw out fruit from within it.

All of this is framed by the voice of Ess See, who guides an unaccompanied thread of improvisation through the title track and a multitracked choir with Rauh’s fretwork in the concluding “If This Be All.” In the latter, she unleashes cries at once born from and at odds with nature. She seems to question the tragedy of the pandemic even while bowing to its biological sovereignty. Such conflicts are central to the human condition, each standing like an abandoned building through which these songs have passed and left their fragrance, thus bidding the ears to inhale the incense of what came before. 

Temporally speaking, these are vignettes, the longest of which falls shy of the three-minute mark. Spatially speaking, however, these are vast oceans in which vessels of possibility sail in every direction a compass can imagine. The only question that remains: Will we burn our bridges or rebuild them before they fall?

The Silent Current From Within is scheduled for a March 12, 2021 release on Destiny Records.

Archie Shepp/Jason Moran: Let My People Go

Living as we now do in a world that feels orphaned from its ancestral histories, there’s no more appropriate space to cry out for resurrection than the womb-like expanse of traditional Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Saxophonist Archie Shepp turns this melody inside out as salvific blood drips along the keys of Jason Moran’s piano. 

Thus, the duo establishes the rhythm of a hymn trapped somewhere between Earth’s crust and the magma churning beneath. If we don’t already feel the words coursing through our ears from the first note, we find them unraveled in Shepp’s own singing voice, of which hints of reed hang in the air like a signature fragrance, as also in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and another traditional spiritual, “Go Down Moses.” In both Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” and Moran’s “He Cares,” the listener is greeted by truth while John Coltrane’s “Wise One” unfurls a territory limited only by our imagination to map it. Here, voices of the past hit the open air of the future, only to find they need oxygen masks just to inhale. Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” reminds us that only in the darkest hours can our thoughts churn in an ocean free of pollution—water for its own sake, primed for the vessels of our attempts to make sense of it all. 

In light of all this preaching of ebony, ivory and everything in between, it would be unwise to think of the album as a catharsis, for a catharsis implies that we have transcended the bonds that necessitate thoughts of escape. No. We must gaze upon the fetters and chains until they burn after-images into our brains, so that we may never forget what the world would have us deny: many had to die for us to stand here, poised on the cusp of a tide that could just as easily turn in our favor as against it. Though still a long way from home, we strive to see that candlelight in the window telling us: Just one more leg of this journey and the doors of relief will spread their wings to receive you. At least here, we have a feather to hold to our hearts as we press on. 

(This review originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)