When Jason Moore, the D.C. rapper and producer who works under the moniker Raw Poetic, first started writing rhymes as a teenager, he had a specific goal in mind. “I wanted to be able to rap to anything, not just a hip-hop beat,” he says, explaining that he’d work out bars atop music from Nirvana and Radiohead along with more conventional hip-hop fare.
That proved to be a much easier task, though, than rhyming along to recordings by his uncle, legendary jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp. “His stuff was very avant-garde, and challenging to the ear and mind to keep up with — but it was really important to me, just because I knew it was my blood,” says Moore, now 41. “I think it got me ready for what we just did.”
The lessons he learned from Shepp’s records were finally put to use last year, when Moore and his octogenarian uncle officially collaborated for the first time during one marathon session at Blue Room Productions in Herndon, Va. The result is “Ocean Bridges,” a fully improvised album on which Moore, Shepp and DJ/producer/drummer/vibraphonist Damu the Fudgemunk (a.k.a. Earl Davis), along with several hip-hop and jazz scene stalwarts of the D.C. region, tap into both of those genres’ more experimental sides and ultimately find a sound that isn’t fully aligned with either one.
Recording with Shepp is an opportunity that Moore, who’s spent the past two decades active as both a soloist and with live hip-hop band RPM (Restoring Poetry in Music) and duo Panacea, has been working toward essentially since he was just practicing along with Shepp’s vast, storied catalogue.
They recorded together once before, when Moore was 18 and just starting out, and it was an experience that left Moore in awe. “Like, damn — I got work to do,” he remembers thinking. “[Shepp] told me, ‘Keep working on it, keep developing your style, and one day you’ll be ready.’ So it’s been literally 20 years of me working on something, and when he’d call and ask about music I’d send it to him and he’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re getting better.’ That was his whole thing: ‘You’re getting better.’ ”
“I was just waiting for a chance,” Shepp insists. “I find Jason’s poetry quite compelling, and original — because it is poetry. They call it rap, but it’s more than that.” Unlike many of his peers, Shepp has long embraced poetry and hip-hop as an intuitive part of what he prefers to call African American music. While he was a theater major at Goddard College in Vermont, Shepp started reading E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, and realized “that poetry and literature could add another dimension to my expression,” as he puts it.
Then, as an avant-gardist living in New York in the mid-1960s, Shepp fell in with a politically minded group of artists and thinkers that included Amiri Baraka (then still known as LeRoi Jones) and James Baldwin — Baraka even wrote his liner notes. Shepp’s insistence that his activism and his art are inextricably linked — “It’s always been my belief that I should say something that connects to the oppression of African Americans, of my people,” he says of his work now — lent itself to incorporating, composing and occasionally performing poetry as part of albums such as 1965’s “Fire Music” and, perhaps most memorably, 1972’s “Attica Blues,” making the subject of his dissent explicit as well as abstract.
Today, he sees how that early experimentation with poetry and music helped pave the way for hip-hop — for his nephew’s art. “The black experience in music has become something else, as much poetry as it is musical expression,” says Shepp. “I had the privilege and pleasure to work with [pioneering spoken-word group] the Last Poets while I was in France, which made me aware not only of who they are but how in my own small way I might have helped them to become who they are. Certainly I wasn’t the only one, but to listen to my nephew carrying on this expression is really inspiring to me.”
Tapping into that inheritance was important not only for Moore, but also for his longtime friend and collaborator Damu the Fudgemunk — a D.C. native who shares a name with his grandfather Earl Davis, a musician who befriended Wayne Shorter when they were serving in the Army together. He’s been sampling jazz as a beatmaker for years and listening to it for even longer thanks to his family of musicians, but had never recorded live improvisation as part of a group of instrumentalists.
“It’s kind of an escape from being a hip-hop producer, because everything is more premeditated — you’re programming things, you lose some of the spontaneous element,” says Davis, 35. Getting in the studio was a little easier thanks to the fact that most of the band, which included bassist Luke Stewart, guitarist Pat Fritz and keyboardist Aaron Gause, had already jammed together either casually or as part of any number of D.C.-area ensembles, but it was still uncharted territory.
“I was like, this dude is so far ahead of us, we just gotta follow his lead,” says Moore. “Uncle Archie, do your thing. I’m joining you on this journey.” So they had no plans, no charts, no ideas — just free-flowing improvisation that Moore and Davis edited afterward, dubbing in lyrics and some additional sounds while attempting to keep the core recording’s same spirit of spontaneity.
“Listening back, I don’t know that any of us would be able to re-create this,” Davis adds. “It even kind of gives me anxiety when I think of trying to do some live performances — how to translate it. I know it can be done but because it was just out of thin air, a very special moment was captured.”
The album is tied together by another, subtler throughline: education. The opening track, “Valuable Lesson,” features Moore conversationally recounting a moment he learned the power of silence; the rest of the album is spliced with tracks called “Professor Shepp’s Agenda,” on which the listener hears him teaching the band his composition “Une petite surprise pour mam’selle” and talking about the importance of public education, especially for underserved black youth. Moore himself teaches at Long Branch Elementary in Arlington, and is navigating coronavirus-era distance learning while he promotes the album.
Yet despite Shepp’s professorial status, both casually at the session and for 30 years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the saxophonist insists that he didn’t come in with any specific wisdom to impart. “Music is always a collaborative experience for me, and I learn a lot, which is important,” he says. “I felt all of the guys who played had either a very original sense of expression, or they were in fact very talented players.”
Instead of being didactic, the session served as something of a mutual admiration society, in which everyone involved found something in common through the music — leading to the album’s title. “Why can’t we bridge the distance of an ocean?” says Davis. “To bridge [Moore’s] ancestry, our musical backgrounds, the generation gap — it’s pretty much a metaphor to explain that no matter the distance, we can always find a way to connect.”