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Given their compatible sensibilities and friendship of several years, a recording by Archie Shepp and Jason Moran may have been inevitable. Both have always honored tradition while seeking new forms of expression, and both have made stellar contributions to the saxophone-piano duo format: Shepp with pianists Horace Parlan and Mal Waldron, among others; Moran more recently with Charles Lloyd. And here they are now, Shepp, 83, Moran, 46 in January, with a moving set of standards and spirituals. But given the pair’s devotion to all forms of African-American artistic expression, one could assume they’re making the case that it’s all spirit music.
There’s a supportive contrast in their performances, as Shepp’s often astringent tone is balanced by Moran’s tendency toward sweetness in his chord voicings. It’s immediately evident in how Moran’s gentle opening on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” leads into Shepp’s more anguished cries on soprano sax, followed by Moran’s gospel-drenched solo. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” finds Shepp in a mellower mode on tenor, though at times he reaches for higher realms in his upper-register bursts.
The pair certainly treat John Coltrane’s “Wise One” as a spiritual, heightening the tune’s hymnal qualities before giving way to the middle section’s loping gait, where the intensity of Shepp’s probing tenor lines and Moran’s lyrical chord runs produce several goosebump-inducing moments. The album’s title is taken from a line in “Go Down Moses,” and its meaning is particularly resonant right now. You can feel that urgency in this performance, as Moran’s rumbling tones and Shepp’s long phrases on soprano bring a sense of foreboding to the slave spiritual.
Shepp also contributes brief vocal turns on “Go Down Moses,” “Motherless Child,” and “Lush Life.” It’s a voice that’s weathered, wise and — like everything on this record — full of soul.
— John Frederick Moore