Thursday, April 03, 2014

Archie Shepp's Attica Blues Orchestra - I Hear The Sound

It was in September 1971 when inmates rebelled at New York State’s Attica Prison to protest the inhumane conditions. A few days later when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered the prison to be retaken by force. Thirty-nine people were left dead: twenty-nine prisoners and ten hostages were all killed by the troopers’ bullets. A month later there was another tragedy at San Quentin resulting in more deaths including that of Black Panther George Jackson. These events inspired Archie Shepp to record Attica Blues a few months later in January 1972 to pay tribute to those whose lives were taken during these events.

In 1979 there were original and repeat performances of Shepp’s Attica Blues Orchestra at the Palais des Glaces. In 2012 Archie Shepp revived the ensemble, together with a brilliant, dynamic collective of performers. It is an orchestra that transcends styles and epochs. The band is international in scope, combining great American artists such as: Amina Claudine Myers, Jimmy Owens, Famoudou Don Moye, Ambrose Akinmusire, Reggie Washington, Tom McClung with an some of Europe’s brightest stars on the European horizon: Stéphane Belmondo, François Théberge, Christophe Leloil, Izidor Leitinger, Raphaël Imbert, Cécile McLorin-Salvant, a Franco-American vocalist, the remarkable and talented soprano, Marion Rampal of Marseille and The String Quartet from Dijon.

Performances of this ensemble was recorded on Sept 9 2012 at the Jazz à La Villette Festival, June 14 2013 at CNCDC de Châteauvallon and on June17 2013 at Les Nuits de Fourvière Festival and Shepp has released this on his own Archieball label as I Hear The Sound. The production of this release was helped by a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign that I was among the contributors to. The actual CD has 11 tracks with two additional tracks available as downloads. It includes a booklet with background information.

The music is captivating and often compelling ranging from the revival of Attica Blues and Mama Too Tight,  the moving renditions of Duke Ellington’ Come Sunday and Cal Massey’s The Cry of My People, to the lovely Ballad For a Child and The Stars Are In Your Eyes. Shepp, in addition to being featured throughout on tenor and soprano saxophones, adds his vocals to those of Myers, McLorin-Salvant, and Rampal. Shepp’s vocals have a certain amateurish charm and contrast with Myers and McLorin-Salvant.

Reggie Washington’s bass helps gets things going on the funky Attica Blues before Myers comes in on piano joined by guitarist Pierre Durand and drummer Famoudou Don Moye as Shepp digs in on  tenor as a trombone growls. The women provide vocal coloring singing “I Gotta Feeling” while Shepp sings about things going wrong, folks not knowing what is right or wrong and there is a story that is gotta be told as the vocalists and the horns add emphasis to Shepp’s wail. The shifting textures and moods of this performance is indicative of the multi-faceted nature of the music on the recording. This is followed by Amina Claudia Myers doing her original Arms with Shepp on soprano sax and the strings caressing her vocal (which Shepp joins in).

Muted trumpets and a bass ostinato introduce Blues For Brother G Jackson with its cry of there being no justice throughout the land prior to Shepp wailing the strong blues groove on tenor. Shepp’s admiration of Duke Ellington is displayed on Come Sunday as his tenor caresses the theme before Cecile McLorin-Salvant delivers the prayer at the center. Three of the compositions  on I Hear The Sound are by Cal Massey whom Shepp and John Coltrane both championed. Particularly moving is The Cry of My People, with moving vocal choruses and soaring trumpet from Ambrose Akinmusire in addition to strong playing from Shepp and a stunning blues-drenched piano solo (likely from Myers) .

The rest of the album is equally stirring and full of passion. Orchestrations and vocals help provide fresh takes on a couple of Shepp staples,  Steam (with Shepp on soprano and McLorin-Savant taking the latter vocal), and  Mama Too Tight. The latter number certain is quite a bit of fun, although the performance of this funky James Brown influenced classic does not quite have the taut groove of the original from some 45 years ago..

The physical CD has eleven tracks along with instructions to download two further selections; the ballad The Stars Are In Your Eyes and the driving Ujaama. They complete the moving and exhilarating music by Archie Shepp's Attica Blues Orchestra. I have listened to I Hear the Sound a number of times over the past few months and each time I am moved by the heart and power of the music captured.

As I have noted, I supported the production of this release on Kickstarter. I also received a review copy from a publicist. Here is a performance of Archie Shepp's Attica Blues Orchestra performing Cal Massey's The Cry of My People.

Here is a lengthy interview (80 minutes), from the video series "The Hang," of Archie Shepp with Bret Primack and Willard Jenkins discussing thsi recording, kickstarter, John Coltrane, the state of jazz today and so much more.

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