Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp: Free-Jazz Trailblazers' New Albums - Rolling Stone
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Saxophone Legends Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp Are Still Pushing Jazz Forward

Both now into their eighties, the Sixties free-jazz trailblazers challenge and inspire on their respective new albums

Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp

Octogenarian saxophone masters Archie Shepp, left, and Pharoah Sanders still sound avant-garde on a pair of new releases with decades-younger collaborators.

Edmond Sadaka Edmond/SIPA/AP; Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

In June of 1965, two young saxophonists, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, gathered at New Jersey’s famed Van Gelder Studio as part of an 11-piece band convened by John Coltrane. At the time, Coltrane was leading his so-called classic quartet, one of the most celebrated bands in jazz, but he was looking toward a wilder, more expansive sound. And he’d enlisted a crew of hungry up-and-comers to help him get there. Joining fellow new faces like Marion Brown and John Tchicai on the date — the results of which came out the following year as Coltrane’s watershed free-jazz epic Ascension — Sanders and Shepp both brought their avant-garde A games, stoking the session’s fire with hoarse cries and bizarre textural effects wrung from their respective tenor saxes.

More than 55 years later — with both Sanders and Shepp now into their eighth decades, and sixth on the jazz scene — each musician is still pushing his sound forward, even as they’re inspiring today’s jazz trailblazers like Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings. As heard on their new albums, Let My People Go and Promises, the states of their respective art, and the paths they’ve taken to this point from those heady Ascension days, are strikingly different.

Shepp’s affiliation with Coltrane was key, yielding not just Ascension but also Four for Trane, Shepp’s 1964 album of rearranged Coltrane pieces, and even a series of unused takes of the first movement of A Love Supreme. But free jazz has always been just one color on his palette: His classic Impulse albums like 1965’s Fire Music and 1967’s Mama Too Tight also touched on Ellington, Jobim, and gutbucket blues; in the Seventies, he embraced protest-minded funk and large-ensemble gospel; and more recently he’s collaborated with MCs including Chuck D, Napoleon Maddox, and his own nephew, Raw Poetic.

Let My People Go, released in February, is the latest in a long line of sax-piano duet sessions in Shepp’s catalog, starting with Goin’ Home, a luminous 1977 set that focused on African-American spirituals, and stretching through 2002’s stirring Billie Holiday tribute Left Alone Revisited, and beyond. Joining the saxophonist on the new album is pianist Jason Moran. Though he’s around four decades younger than Shepp, Moran shares the saxophonist’s full-spectrum engagement with jazz and its tributaries, building on the omnivorous style of his teacher, the late, great Jaki Byard.

The material here is familiar territory for Shepp: a mix of spirituals and standards, some of which he’s recorded before on Goin’ Home and other prior releases, plus one Moran original. But Shepp has never been interested in rote interpretations. Moment to moment, these performances — recorded live at two separate European concerts in 2017 and 2018 — feel as searching and expressive as anything from his more overtly radical period. On “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” for example, he digs deep into the melody, ornamenting it with breathy flutters and rough-edged swoops on his soprano sax, while Moran adds his own bluesy exclamations and glimmers of upper-register notes. Shepp said recently that when he originally recorded spirituals for Goin’ Home, he was moved to tears as he pondered the connection between the gospel music he heard with his grandmother in church and “the suffering and enslavement of Black people.” At the end of “Motherless Child,” when he croons the song’s refrain, you hear that same mournful ache in his rich and booming voice.

As good as Shepp sounds on soprano here, the tenor remains his signature horn. On a version of Coltrane’s “Wise One,” Moran sets up a rolling cadence that recalls McCoy Tyner‘s contribution on the original, as Shepp takes an extended solo that moves deftly between velvety buzz and sandpapery squawk. And on “‘Round Midnight,” the combination of Shepp’s volatile runs and Moran’s flowing, free-time foundation gives the Thelonious Monk ballad tune the gravity of a hymn. 

If Archie Shepp’s aesthetic arc since the Sixties has been a gradual journey to the bedrock of African-American music, Sanders’ has been a mission to reconcile the tumultuous squall of his Coltrane days with a love for nourishing melody. On his own early Impulse dates, like 1969’s essential Karma, he achieved a kind of hippie-jazz nirvana, built around meditative vamps, maraca and tambourine accents, prayerful free-form swells, and speaking-in-tongues vocals. Like Shepp, he made moves toward R&B and funk in his later years, but he never lost the gorgeously grainy roar that made him such a potent asset in Coltrane’s later bands.

Sanders’ latest — like Let My People Go, a team-up with a much younger musician, in this case Sam Shepherd, the thirtysomething electronic composer-producer known as Floating Points — drives home what a master collaborator he’s always been. Picking up on threads from the saxophonist’s late-Nineties and early-2000s work with Bill Laswell, which set his horn against dubby, spacey soundscapes, Promises, out March 26th, places him at the center of an electro-acoustic ambient-classical concerto, composed and arranged by Shepherd and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra strings. Consisting of a single, 46-minute work, the album is both startlingly minimal and arrestingly gorgeous.

Promises hinges on a crystalline melodic keyboard figure, played by Shepherd, that pulsates gently as the orchestra rises up around it. Sanders’ tenor sax murmurs on top, playing slow, searching phrases that weave in and out of the core theme. Sometimes his horn recedes, trading places with burbling synths, glinting organ, sweeping string passages, or even his own murmuring vocalization, but it always returns, adding a flavor of deep-blues pathos to the ethereal surroundings. Only sparingly, such as one during brief, stunning episode about 35 minutes in, does Sanders break into the harsh sax ululation that he’s famous for, but overall, the piece feels like a loving sonic gift to a master from a disciple, and a worthy successor to Sanders’ foundational Sixties and Seventies epics.

Sanders and Shepp aren’t the only eminent jazzmen making vital statements this year. Saxists Charles Lloyd and Gary Bartz — both also in their eighties, and both of whom also hit the scene in the early-to-mid–Sixties — shine on their respective new releases. Bartz’s Jazz Is Dead 006, out April 2nd, is a gorgeously groovy hip-hop–meets–retro-funk odyssey made with the Jazz Is Dead production team of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, that harks back to the onetime Miles Davis alto saxist’s Seventies group NTU Troop. Like Promises, it plays like a bespoke tribute to his artistry from musicians he inspired (and even provided sample-able material for). And Tone Poem, Lloyd’s latest with his group the Marvels, finds the saxist and flutist, who brought a Coltrane-informed yet rock-savvy sound to the Fillmore in the Sixties, furthering his daring yet warmly approachable intergenre mission alongside cutting-edge players decades younger than himself.

More than half a century after the free-jazz revolution, it’s heartening to find Sanders, Shepp, and their contemporaries not just still active but sounding so committed and engaged, reaching across generations and genre lines. All these years later, their sounds are still ascending.

In This Article: Jazz, Pharoah Sanders

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