The words of Exodus suffuse the entirety of Archie Shepp and Jason Moran’s new album of duo performances, from the title to every note the two play. But listening to it, I couldn’t help but think of another passage of scripture that resonates with the soul-rattling, cavernous echo of Shepp’s saxophone: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the path of the Lord.” As John the Baptist spoke those words in gentle yet emphatic direction to the Judeans then, Shepp’s horn screams to us today how we have failed to straighten that path.
Let My People Go collects seven tracks that Shepp, the iconic saxophonist, activist and artistic polymath, and Moran, arguably the most imaginative pianist of his generation, recorded together in a series of live concerts between 2017 and 2018. You wouldn’t know that from first listen. The pain and fury they evoke in the two spirituals (“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Go Down, Moses”) that make up the center of the record resound with the cries of justice heard over this past summer in the wake of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. As Moran lays down a harmonic bed streaked with Alice Coltrane-esque divine flame, Shepp blows and sings in a voice that cracks constantly; whether from age or heartbreak, it’s devastating either way.
This isn’t all fire and brimstone, however, as Shepp and Moran display empathy and purpose across the other five tracks: four reimagined works by others and one Moran original, “He Cares.” They conjure the magnanimous faith of Trane in their take on “Wise One”—a deep cut from Crescent—and on Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” they briefly draw out the dark undertones of Johnny Hodges’ original alto melody before turning the piece into something of their own. As notes tumble from Shepp’s sax, Moran constantly builds new overtones that make the music ring with even deeper harmony. The play between the two musicians exemplifies a kind of accord built on true communication and working toward a common, beautiful good.