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Decades before Public Enemy and NWA, Archie Shepp was electrifying audiences with his gritty urban poetry. “Where tracks is, the money ain’t/It’s all in them tracks,” the saxophonist recited on “Scag,” a performance captured on a recording of his landmark concert at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1965. The arco drone of Barre Phillips’ bass strings, the anxious punctuation of Bobby Hutcherson’s vibraphone and the nervous patter of Joe Chambers’ drums evoked a feverish jones for the narcotic embrace of heroin. Shepp’s impassioned street reportage revealed an eye for the chilling detail: “And as our various bloods commingled on the ceiling there, I said ‘Scag ain’t dope, it’s death!’”An acolyte of John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, Shepp is celebrated for his anguished, edgy tenor saxophone, a powerful voice of 1960s-’70s avant-garde jazz that sounded a primal cry from the heart of the Black community. But early on he realized his words could be every bit as potent as the sounds he elicited from his instrument. So it’s not unreasonable that the 83-year-old saxophonist would find value in the verbal dynamism of rap, last year releasing an album with his nephew, rapper and vocalist Raw Poetic (Jason Moore), and multi-instrumentalist and producer Damu the Fudgemunk (Earl Davis). The resultant Ocean Bridges (Redefinition) connects generations and genres in an organic way, with Shepp’s bluesy tenor lines adding depth and texture. Tracks titled “Professor Shepp’s Agenda” are woven throughout, as the revered jazz elder speaks or teaches his bandmates chord changes.
The seeds of the collaboration were sown when Moore and his mother, Shepp’s younger sister, attended the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors during which Shepp was recognized as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. After the ceremony, Moore visited his uncle backstage. “We had danced around the idea of doing something together for a few years,” says Moore, 41, who lives in Virginia just outside Washington, D.C. “And he was like, ‘Hey, you need to be putting out more music.’ So I said, ‘We need to do something.’ He said yes, and I honestly thought he was just joking around. So I left, and then somebody from the label was like, ‘Yo, you need to follow up with him.’”Shepp first recorded with his nephew 20 years ago in less-than-ideal circumstances — during a blizzard, in Moore’s Centerville home, which had no heat. The efforts were for naught. Moore lost the tape. “Oh my God, I’m still depressed about that,” he says. “I was so green at the time.” This time, the stars aligned. Shepp says Moore’s artistry has grown more sophisticated over the years. “As far as rap is concerned, I found he had matured quite a bit,” he says by phone from his home in Massachusetts in mid-December. “But he was always quite ‘on it.’ The things he wanted to say he expressed very eloquently. And now I feel a sort of maturation in the thematic elements. He’s evolved.”As has the jazz/hip-hop hybrid. Late-’80s recordings often emphasized turntable-scratching or relied heavily on samples from classic jazz records. Ocean Bridges’ live in-studio instrumentation captures the immediacy of a free-flowing jam session by a group of musicians who’ve worked together for years and their honored guest. “I’ve never looked at myself as a hip-hop musician,” says Davis, a.k.a. Damu, 36, a D.C. native, who plays drums and vibraphone on the album, engages in some turntable scratching and mixed and produced the tracks, as well. “I just felt like hip-hop was my instrument to create jazz. I didn’t want to do any snap-your-fingers, ’60s kind of generic, ‘Hey, cool, play that horn!’ I didn’t want to do any of that. It had its place. So we have all of these ideas and influences and points of view in a room, but all of us have been exposed to these different worlds.”Ocean Bridges wasn’t Shepp’s first foray into the world of hip-hop. He’s performed with Mos Def and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, the latter of whom appeared on his 2007 recording Gemini. “Chuck is very much a part of what’s going on, in terms of the Black struggle and the Afro-American liberation movement,” Shepp says. “He’s been very inspiring and is very well-informed.”
[caption id="attachment_37443" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Archie Shepp (Photo: Britannica.com)[/caption]
High praise from someone of Shepp’s stature, who was making fight-the-power statements in verse and music at the height of the Civil Rights movement. “Rufus (Swung His Face at Last to the Wind, Then His Neck Snapped)” he titled a scathing instrumental track on his 1964 recording Four for Trane. Directly after the assassination of Malcolm X, Shepp recorded the spoken-word track “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm” for his 1965 masterpiece Fire Music. And “The Wedding,” from 1966’s Live in San Francisco, provided another harrowing portrait of street life, documenting a woman giving birth on the floor of a church. “Those were, to some extent, influenced by Amiri Baraka,” says Shepp, citing the late critic, author and poet. “I found that poetry allowed me to express things more directly vis-à-vis music. People can interpret a musical line or phrase however they want, but with poetry, it’s specific and describes exactly what one wants to say. It cannot be misconstrued.”
Then there was 1972’s Attica Blues, a soul- and R&B-infused album that Shepp released in reaction to the 1971 slaughter of rioting inmates at a New York prison. Shepp felt he could reach more mainstream listeners by downplaying avant-garde elements in his music, meeting audiences halfway in terms of melody and groove. In a way, he’s accomplishing a similar aim with Ocean Bridges, as well as with Let My People Go, a recent duet album of spirituals and ballads with pianist Jason Moran, neither of which compromises his artistic ambitions and both of which resonate in the Black Lives Matter era. Like rap, Shepp’s scabrous, politically charged music was denounced by American critics who felt threatened by both its form and content. Fortunately, it found audiences here and abroad who understood the medium and the message. “At the same time that an older generation was being turned off, a younger generation was beginning to get into that music and were inspired by it,” he says. “It made some people nervous, but it turned on a generation of young people who were wide open and hungry for a new experience.”Now PlayingSachal Vasandani/Romain Collin Midnight Shelter (Edition)
Vocalist Vasandani and pianist Collin have crafted a stark and lovely album that rivals John Coltrane’s classic with Johnny Hartman for intimacy. Recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown, the duo’s Midnight Shelter reflects a longing for connection and nostalgia for simpler times, as in the achingly wistful “Summer, No School.” Vasandani’s velvety vocals are particularly well-suited to Nick Drake’s “River Man” and Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away,” and Collin’s dark-hued accompaniment adds layers of atmosphere. A rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous” is particularly moving, as are Vasandani’s impossibly romantic lyrics. You can literally hear the singer breathing between lines, a very personal punctuation not unlike a saxophonist’s fingers clacking on the keys. Feature photo of Raw Poetic, Damu the Fudgemunk and Archie Shepp courtesy of Redefinition Records.