That Archie Shepp’s newest iteration of this striking song cycle arrives in the wake of the death of LeRoi Jones (known later as Imamu Amiri Baraka) is fitting: Shepp, after a memorable stint with John Coltrane, made his earliest impact mixing jazz with the kind of protest narratives long associated with poets like Jones. Attica Blues Orchestra Live: I Hear the Sound reminds us that music — and verse — can be uncomfortable, challenging, outside of our every-day sphere.
Shepp’s intial take (simply called Attica Blues) arrived in 1972, not long after a multi-ethnic prison riot over crushing living conditions turned deadly — sparking a brief but unsuccessful coverup. Inmates, at one point, controlled a portion of Attica State in 1971, holding 33 hostages that included guards and some civilian employees. Then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockfeller’s decision to retake the correctional facility by force, however, an action that ended up costing 39 people their lives as state troopers killed 29 prisoners and 10 of the hostages. That fact only came to light later, after the administration initially tried to blame the deaths on the rioters.
Shepp’s flair for the dramatic — he is also a playwright, and has written some interesting music for the stage — added untold depths of color and meaning to this story through words and song. Still, other than a subsequent 1979 performance, Attica Blues has remained dormant. That is, until now, with the January 14, 2014 release of Attica Blues Orchestra Live: I Hear the Sound via Harmonia Mundi.
In a reminder that the original protest included blacks, Latinos and whites, Shepp gathered an international band of collaborators to reanimate this turbulent, still-resonant narrative, including Reggie Washington, Stephane Beimondo, Ambrose Akinmusire, Jimmy Owens, Francois Theberge, Cecile McLorin-Salvant and Marion Rampal, among others. They dig deeper into the latent emotion-laden blues of the piece, telegraphed in the album title, balanced here against Shepp’s penchant for sputteringly surprising, passionately sudden agitprop. There is, in particular in the vocal stylings of McLorin-Salvant and Rampal, a lyricism that works in perfect tandem with the album’s serrated avant-garde edges.
The results convey the complexity of this awful moment in a way that still connects decades later — even as Attica Blues Orchestra Live: I Hear the Sound underscores just how much Shepp did away from celebrated contributions during Trane’s Love Supreme sessions and on Ascension.
More than just a potent sideman or even a leading proponent of the New Thing, Shepp was — and is — a voice for advancing the idea of what jazz could and can be, a voice for change, a voice for the ages. Somewhere, Amiri Baraka is smiling.