Archie Shepp & the Attica Blues Orchestra,
I Hear the Sound
(Archieball ARCH, 2013)

First, a little history. On Sept. 9, 1971, Attica Prison in upstate New York exploded into a major riot in which 33 hostages were taken. For five days, about 1,000 prisoners controlled the prison. As negotiations went on, Governor Rockefeller lost his patience and ordered the state police and the National Guard to retake the prison by force. Twenty-nine prisoners and 10 hostages -- all guards and civilian prison workers -- were killed by the troops. Rockefeller's administration first tried to blame the deaths on the rioters but were forced to admit that their own troops had done the killing.

In 1972, Archie Shepp, a major force in modern jazz who always maintained a social consciousness, recorded the album Attica Blues to pay tribute to the dead. The Attica Blues Orchestra, which he formed to do the album, was not an ongoing band. They only performed twice, once on the original album and again in 1979 at a repeat performance of the album in France.

In 2012, Shepp reformed the band, this time expanding it to 24 pieces from many countries, including singers and a string quartet. This album is the result of the reunion. This album is also one of the best pieces of music you'll hear this or any other year. Shepp, a musician who has long been in the forefront of important movements in jazz -- he was one of the first guys to record Ornette Coleman's music and formed the New York Contemporary Five, which brought him to the attention of John Coltrane, with whom he recorded and performed. In the 1960s, he became interested in the music of Africa, which led to his involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Attica Blues was one result of that involvement.

I Hear the Sound is another. Recorded in live concert, the CD explores the plight of the underdog. It celebrates the exploited, the downtrodden, the people upon whom the 1 percent climbed as they rose to the top. It is music that reminds us that we are responsible for our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate than us and that we must realize that unspeakable things are being done to them daily.

How do these social ideas come across in music? Beautifully. The opening song, a remake of "Africa Blues," builds on a single repeated riff that grows more powerful as the track builds, adding instruments and voices as it proceeds. It's a powerful song. On "Arms," which sounds like a mysterious love song, the arrangement does not really match the lyrics. It sounds sad, lonely and deep with swirls of sound that sound like the current of a river, strong and forbidding. You realize you're not really listening to a traditional love song at all.

"Blues for Brother G. Jackson," a tune for the Black Panther leader who was killed in prison in 1971, sounds on the surface like a song off of the soundtrack for a movie like Shaft. It isn't fluff, however; Shepp uses the familiar form to construct a dark and angry track that takes its depth from his angry tenor solo. It's a great track, filled with beauty, anger, sadness and compassion.

I could go on, track by track, but let's just let it be sufficient to say that all of them are great. This is one of the freshest and most real records you will encounter. It blisters with its intensity and dazzles in its beauty. I believe the key to the album is Shepp's vocal on the Duke Ellington tune, "Come Sunday." The way he songs it, with his gruff, harsh but caring voice, makes the track come out wistfully, as though Shepp is not so much singing as praying. In a sense, I Hear the Sound is a prayer.

Friends, jazz doesn't come much better than this.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

23 November 2013

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