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Celebrating African American Music Appreciation Month – Review of Archie Shepp’s New Album

This is a guest post by Scott Cashman, Manager, Harper College Community Education.

Did you know that June is African American Music Appreciation Month? This celebration of the great music produced by the African American culture was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. This post looks at the newest recording by the great saxophone player, composer, vocalist and social critic, Archie Shepp. Shepp was named as one of the few National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters in 2016. Now comes his new album which examines the most critical forms of music to emerge in the New World.

Archie Shepp has previously interpreted the spirituals and blues in duo with the great pianist Horace Parlan with the albums Going Home (1977) and Trouble No More (1980). Those recordings stand as powerful statements about the various forms that African American music has taken on since Africans were first forcibly brought to this continent. By the time the albums with Parlan were recorded Shepp had begun to examine more traditional interpretations of the music and while his soloing retained the fire and dissonance of the Avant Garde, Parlan grounded the songs in a traditional approach. The beauty and passion of those recordings, for me, set a standard for what a duo recording can be.

Album cover of 'Let my people go' by Archie Shepp and Jason MoranNow comes a new recording, again a duo, with Jason Moran that re-examines spirituals, blues, and standards (which include some of Shepp’s own compositions). Moran is well equipped to accompany Shepp and while some of the pieces have been recorded by Shepp before, these versions are welcome additions. This new album – Let My People Go – was released on February 12, 2021 and stands tall in Shepp’s body of work. At 83 years old, Shepp’s playing retains the fire of his 1960s recordings and perhaps even a deeper emotional content. The fire is not the point now but is a way to express the emotional content of the song. Striking to me in these recordings is his somewhat sparing but effective use of the low register of his tenor sax which conjures up the strength necessary to play this music and the strength necessary for the African Americans to even survive in a culture that has been designed to subjugate and disadvantage them for hundreds of years. You won’t find any breakneck tempos here (nor on the Parlan recordings) but you don’t need them to deepen your understanding of this part of the tradition. And indeed, this is what Shepp the artist has matured into, a bearer of deep tradition. His intellectual curiosity long ago brought him to engage the entirety of African American history into his academic work and as an artist he has followed the same trajectory. What is different in this recording is Shepp’s singing, which was not present on the Parlan recordings. Again using the lower register to great advantage, his voice has embodied the blues throughout the 30+ years that he’s been singing. Today his voice remains an effective way for him to communicate the meaning of the songs to his audience. He really delivers a line in ways that make the meaning crystal clear.

It is easy to be overshadowed by Shepp, but Jason Moran makes his presence known throughout the recording. His playing is at times beautiful, shimmering, sympathetic and forceful. He plays the role of the rhythm section and soloist to great advantage. It is no mystery that musically he has locked in with Shepp over the last few years as they continue a partnership that is as rewarding for us listeners as it appears to be for the artists.

Let My People Go is an important recording that should ground us in a time of renewed social upheaval, reminding us that the struggle for equity and equality has deep historical roots that can be found in our country’s musical traditions. Get it from www.bandcamp.com.

Now is a good time to think about your own music-making. In Harper College’s Community Music and Arts Center you can learn an instrument or join an ensemble whatever your playing level. We have opportunities for beginners to advanced players. Vist our web page for more details!


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