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  • review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer | photo by Michael Todd

    It can be hard to parse out the many contrasts in AZP.

    In their music, the core duo of Ishma Valenti and Zachary Watkins navigates a mountain of sensitive territory. They’re revolutionaries, but still want to entertain. They’re demonstrably religious men, but they don’t want to prosthelytize. They’re pacifists, but their latest EP Early Sunday Morning is embattled with a current of fighting spirit and the tonal violence of songs like “Charge.”

    It’s part of what makes pinpointing any one precise message very difficult. It’s part of what makes them fascinating.

    But “Black Jesus” says it all. It wasn’t the most crowd-pleasing song during their packed Friday night set at The Bourbon. That distinction would go to older, staple AZP songs “Keep It Simple” or “I’m Laughing.” But even in the din of the crowd and the full five-member band, “Black Jesus” clarified some crucial racial messages that regularly inhabit a few verses from Valenti. But here the cover of their album, which features the evocative face of a black Jesus in the thorny crown, gets its own song.

    On Friday, with Watkins tapping at a dancey, haunting bassline on piano and Valenti seemingly positioned high above the crowd, the opening of “Black Jesus” articulated in a song that can barely contain its own pent-up frustration a gross inequality of images (and, in turn, life experience) that for black children raised Christian, the most important imagistic figure in their lives is fearfully, unflinchingly white-skinned. The song gives voice to a formative problem.

    Valenti rapped: “Now, they say, ‘But wait, it don’t really matter.’ Well, if it don’t matter, then why not make him blacker?”

    AZP, like St. Christopher on Wednesday night, found the sweet spot between social consciousness and living a moment by simply pointing to the room they were in. With James Shehan’s guitar howling in the background, Valenti waved his hands at all the ills of the city and the country and the world, but looked AZP’s audience in the eyes and put it bluntly: “They can’t tear this apart.”
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