8. An avant-gardist in the tradition

Go Down, Moses. Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan, 1977.

Shepp and Parlan’s first duo album seems less of a departure now than it did at the time. Charles Mingus’ former pianist and a saxophone player noted for richness of timbre, digging into a sequence of spirituals and gospel songs? Of course that’ll work.

It did, and does. But I now discover much was made of the firebrand horn player, just turned 40 and something of a spokesman for the avant garde, getting together in Copenhagen with the slightly older keyboard player to examine their joint heritage. Was he seeing the light? Turning conservative in his (not very) old age? Abandoning the search for new sounds and settling for something altogether more familiar?

None of the above, obviously. The idea that jazz, or music in general, involves such divisions seems pretty silly these days. It renews itself constantly by incorporating whatever seems timely from the sounds around. They can be new, old, or in between. And the revisiting an old stream certainly doesn’t mean that the result will sound like stepping into the same river again. Lending old songs new light is one of the best things a player can offer.

I cared nothing about that at first hearing. The moment stays with me. The excellent Derek Jewell’s Sounds Interesting was BBC radio’s 1970s take on separating out the bits of music R3 never really knows how to deal with – ghettoising, I’d call it. Then (as now) the main thing was it was late at night because, y’know, that’s when people are supposed to listen to this kind of thing. And it keeps it out of the way of the proper stuff the rest of the day. Back then, you listened at the appointed hour or missed it forever, so it played at my bedside.

When this track (it might have been – I wouldn’t claim to remember the selection), this sound, reared up out of the dark, it was immediately obvious this was a new album one needed to own. The tunes are deep. The playing renders them with a darkly brooding beauty, mostly unadorned. The piano is spare, light-footed, the saxophone sound – Shepp’s timbre parked half-way down the avenue that has Ben Webster at one end and Albert Ayler at the other – drenched in emotion.

It didn’t occur to me this was any kind of surprise. Hard to see why it ever was, really. Still, the release was well received, and sits well now in the context of Shepp’s long career – as the unusually long and well-researched wikipedia entry for a single album makes clear. It’s been widely celebrated, and maybe even emulated. Charlie Haden and Hank Jones’ two wonderful duo albums certainly cover 8 of the same tunes, to similar effect – though Hank plays a bit more piano. Gloriously, Shepp himself – now with many other duos in his back catalogue – has just released a piano duo recording with Jason Moran, and reprises two of them there. The tone is thinner, and less controlled, but the spirit very much the same.

I’m enjoying the new one. But this one will remain in the regular playlist. I’ve seen Shepp live a quite a few times, and fair to say that sometimes he delivers less than others: who doesn’t? But here, he really put down something for secular worshippers to cherish.

Here’s the full album

Why the No 8? 

This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

And I’m going to collect them all on this page.

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