When Jason Moore went to see his uncle Archie Shepp perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, last year, the rapper — stage name, Raw Poetic — was hopeful that the Philadelphia-raised jazz sax legend would be game to work together. Moore had proposed recording before, and they had actually cut a demo 20 years ago.
And this time, after hearing the music that Moore had been working on with his partner Earl “Damu the Fudgemunk” Davis, Shepp gave his nephew the approval he was seeking with a two-word answer: “You’re ready.”
“When I heard their poems," Shepp says, "I realized that they expressed their own experience. They had matured. That’s what I meant when I said ‘You’re ready.' ”
The resulting collaboration is Ocean Bridges (Redefinition *** 1/2), a robust, completely improvised session credited to all three principals. It was recorded with a live band one day in northern Virginia, where the 41-year-old Moore, a Philly native, works as an elementary schoolteacher.
The album, which was released two days before Shepp’s 83rd birthday this month, links generations by telling a story that reaffirms family ties while blending genres, and featuring a whole lot of inspired Archie Shepp sax solos.
Stitched together with interludes labeled “Professor Shepp’s Agenda,” Ocean Bridges ignores boundaries as Shepp always has, stretching back to his Fire Music in 1965 and the landmark Attica Blues in 1972.
“I was part of that rap generation before they called it rap,” he said, speaking from the western Massachusetts home where he lives with his wife, Monette Berthomier. “Mine were poems, not necessarily dictated by rhythm or rhyme, but by ideas.
“I’m one of the authors of that generation,” says Shepp, who had several plays produced in the 1960s and whose musical collaborators have included Sun Ra, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and Chuck D.
Shepp, who taught for decades at the State University of New York and University of Massachusetts, speaks of “African American music” rather than “jazz.”
“He just looks at music as a fluid way of expression,” says Davis, a producer and multi-instrumentalist who co-owns the Redefinition label. A second, more beat-driven release with Shepp, Right Side of the Black Hole, is due later this year.
“There was no conversation about ‘I come from the jazz world, you come from the hip-hip world.’ It was, ‘Let’s just have this conversation. Everything will work itself out.’ And it did.”
Shepp’s open-minded, interdisciplinary career began in Philadelphia. “That’s my hometown,” he says with enthusiasm.
He grew up in the Brickyard neighborhood in East Germantown, where his family had moved from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after World War II. “There was a factory that made bricks nearby, and it did carry that as a metaphor," he says. "A really tough neighborhood.”
But hardship, Shepp says, can produce great art. “Tough times, and you had to learn to be tough. And there’s a certain beauty in that brutality. If you outlive it, you can express it.”
When he was 4, Shepp pestered his father, a Duke Ellington and Count Basie fan who worked at the Navy Yard, to teach him to play James P. Johnson’s “Charleston” on banjo. He sounds out the song’s rhythm, savoring the memory.
Soon, he moved on to piano, clarinet, and saxophone. When he was 12, a neighbor took him and jazz bassist-to-be Reggie Workman to see Charlie Parker at the Metropolitan Opera House on Broad Street.
Parker commanded a 39-piece orchestra, but Shepp most vividly recalls seeing Parker on the street.
“He was with a little blonde lady, something that one would never see in Philadelphia at that time. Even the bravest black man wouldn’t dare to be on the street with a white woman. ... He seemed to have no fear. I didn’t see his face. But I knew from his attitude: Charlie Parker’s in town.”
At Germantown High School, Shepp focused on literature. Trumpeter Lee Morgan mentored him musically. And he began hearing of a lightning-fast player named John Coltrane.
“He was a legend to me before I ever met him,” Shepp recalls. “I set out to find him in Philadelphia, but I never did.”
After graduating from Goddard College in Vermont, he found Coltrane in New York. He went to the jazz giant’s home for advice and remembers Coltrane reaching for his horn immediately upon waking, “like he was eating breakfast. He played all the time, even playing himself to sleep.”
Coltrane produced Shepp’s first album on Impulse in 1964, Four for Trane. Shepp was a soloist on Coltrane’s groundbreaking 1966 Ascension.
Moore’s mother, Anita, is Shepp’s younger sister. She sang on his 1971 album Things Have Got To Change, on the song “Money Blues.”
“I’ve always had a sense of my family being endemic to my expression, and my feeling about being black,” Shepp says. “[Ocean Bridges] connects me to my roots, and my family, and across generations. It was important for me to make that connection.”
Moore also grew up in Northwest Philadelphia, four decades after Shepp. He lived in Mount Airy until he was 9 and received an Afrocentric elementary school education at Lotus Academy in Germantown. Public Enemy albums that his mother gave him were his window into the Black Power movement in which his famous uncle had been involved.
Public Enemy led to 1990s Native Tongues rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest that incorporated jazz into their music. “I would buy my uncle’s CDs and also Miles Davis and John Coltrane," he says. "I wanted to rap over the original stuff.”
Moore honed his craft while working as an educator — he’s teaching 3rd and 5th graders remotely during the pandemic — playing in the Virginia-D.C. area with his band RPM (Restoring Poetry in Music).
In “Learning To Breathe” on Ocean Bridges, Moore rhymes about his musical lineage. “I rap and sing me a poem, put legacy in my tone / Blood in the banjo in my bones, my voice the new saxophone / This Philly [stuff] can’t be cloned.”
“Jason has definitely grown as a lyricist and a writer,” says Davis, 35. “My roots are in sampling and programming, but I’ve embraced more live instrumentation and being spontaneous. I think that’s what Mr. Shepp needed to hear.”
Moore said it was “a little intimidating” to play with Shepp on a record he had wanted to make “for about 25 years now.”
Shepp walked into the studio with a cane, sharply dressed in a suit and tie. “You might think, he’s old,” his nephew says. But “he plays like a young man. ... He makes a sound with a saxophone I’ve never heard before.”
Davis remembers looking across the room thinking: "That’s Mr. Shepp!”
But “there’s no difference between me and them," Shepp says now, with humility. “We’re just people trying to express themselves.”