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Black History Month in Take Five: Archie Shepp and Jason Moran, Wadada Leo Smith, Madlib

Along with some new fire from singer-songwriters Thandi Ntuli and Fay Victor.

Archie Shepp and Jason Moran, “Isfahan”

In the fall of 2019, as part of his exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art, pianist Jason Moran organized a series of salon-like concerts called “Jazz on a High Floor in the Afternoon.” He kicked it off himself, in a https://youtu.be/JD4ItR89SCc" target="_blank">rare duo performance with the redoubtable saxophonist and composer Archie Shepp.

Their new duo album — Let Me People Go, arriving this Friday on Shepp’s Archieball label — consists of recordings made a while earlier, in 2017 and 2018. But the feeling is the same: tender but determined, steeped in the spirit, with an instinctual attunement to revelation. You hear all of this at once on the album’s opening track, a transfixing version of the spiritual “https://youtu.be/xJuO7v20dWQ" target="_blank">Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It’s no less present in a delicate reading of “Isfahan,” a Billy Strayhorn-Duke Ellington ballad from The Far East Suite.

The song flows in a free rubato until about 3:45, when Moran initiates a slow stride rhythm. The duo’s drift in and out of tempo feels entirely organic, which is something you can say about the album as a whole.

Let My People Go will be released on Friday; preorder here.

Wadada Leo Smith / Douglas R. Ewart / Mike Reed, “Super Moon Rising”

Black music knows no limits. “We’ve always had to be ingenious about how we set the terms of engagement,” Douglas R. Ewart said recently, in an excellent JazzTimes article, “The Changing Nature of Protest in Jazz.” The piece, by bassist Melvin Gibbs, looks to Ewart as a role model partly because of his years of leadership in The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. But those principles also register clearly in the music — as on a new album, Sun Beams of Shimmering Light, with Ewart on reeds, Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet and Mike Reed on drums.  

The album, recorded at Reed’s essential Chicago venue Constellation in 2015, can be understood as an intergenerational AACM summit, though that makes it sound weightier than necessary. Listen carefully to “Super Moon Rising,” which begins with a chime of finger cymbals and ends with a controlled whoosh of air, and you’ll easily grasp that these master improvisers are engaged in the deepest of listening sessions, committed to the pure possibility of every moment as it unfolds. Listen to the way Smith’s muted trumpet opens a door for Ewart’s flute, just before the four-minute mark: if that isn’t an ingenious way to set the terms of engagement, I’m not sure what is.

Sun Beams of Shimmering Light will be released on Astral Spirits on April 16; preorder here.

Thandi Ntuli, “Dikeledi”

Black music knows no borders. Consider the new Brownswood compilation Indaba Is, an up-to-the-minute dispatch from the South African jazz scene, featuring some of the brightest younger artists in the game. The chief curators behind the project are poet and performance artist Siyabonga Mthembu, probably best known in the States as a member of Shabaka and the Ancestors, and pianist and singer-songwriter Thandi Ntuli, whose featured track, “Dikeledi,” is an album highlight.

“Dikeledi” means “Tears” in Sesotho, the language of the Basotho people. But Ntuli means the song more as an exhortation than a lament. Over a sinuous groove that draws deeply from contemporary R&B, she pays homage to Ubuntu, the philosophical term that refers to a divine human essence. In English, she elaborates:

If you feel small, you’re small When you are tall, you’re tall What they believe reflects What you accept as true The illusion emerges from you

Indaba Is has been released on Brownswood Recordings.

Fay Victor, William Parker, Hamid Drake, “Paintings in the Sky”

On the latest episode of Jazz United, Greg Bryant and I share a full-throated endorsement of an extraordinary 10-CD boxed set by bassist and composer William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World. We briefly touch on this in our conversation, but one standout in the set is Disc 5, titled Harlem Speaks, with singer and composer Fay Victor alongside Parker on assorted instruments and Hamid Drake on percussion.

“Paintings in the Sky” finds Victor in an incantatory fervor, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics that feel historically pointed and politically charged. “Don’t let The Last Poets be the last poets,” she urges repeatedly. (Elsewhere she invokes Zora Neale Hurston, among other guiding spirits.) Her performance, which occasionally veers into a chantlike form of scatting, is well supported by Parker on guembri, a West African lute, and Drake on frame drum.

Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World is out now on AUM Fidelity.

Madlib, “Sound Ancestors”

Sound Ancestors, the brilliant new release by Madlib, doesn’t slot easily into any known format — unless you maintain a standalone category in your collection for “head-trippy, jazz-informed, instrumental hip-hop collage art,” in which case, good on ya. The album, made in collaboration with Madlib’s fellow producer Four Tet, spans a galactic range of tone and texture, and spins it all into one sonic experience. It feels telling that the title track and centerpiece begins as a minimalist riff on gamelan and then veers into the unmistakable realm of avant-garde jazz. 

Madlib is a prodigious multi-instrumentalist — hear his handiwork in Yesterdays New Quintet — so it’s not beyond his capacity to play the bass, drums and flute heard on the track. (I’m not certain that he did — instrumental credits for the album are hard to come by, and there could be sampling involved — but it seems more than possible.) What matters is that he has situated this improvised exchange at the heart of his enterprise here. As Piotr Orlov implies in an insightful piece about Sound Ancestors, Madlib is pledging allegiance to an undying AACM ideal: Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future.

Sound Ancestors is out now on Madlib Invazion.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.