More than 40 years later, the saxophonist, activist, and free-jazz pioneer revisits his musical response to the Attica Prison uprising.
On August 21, 1971, prominent Black Panther member and African American left-wing figure George Jackson was shot and killed by guards at the San Quentin State Prison in California, after allegedly trying to escape. Nineteen days later, Jackson's death served as the impetus for the most deadly prison uprising in United States history.
On September 9, inmates at the drastically overcrowded Attica Correctional Facility in New York State rebelled against illegal living conditions and suppressed rights. They seized control of a large part of the prison and made a series of demands to Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Eventually, negotiations broke down, state troopers stormed the facility, and by the time it was all over on September 21, more than 40 people were dead. An independent commission later charged that Rockefeller acted with undue force, and the incident became a paradigm of ongoing racial and religious tensions.
The event inspired Archie Shepp to write and record Attica Blues in early 1972. If any jazz musician was suited to react to Attica directly and explicitly, it was Shepp. An influential avant-garde saxophonist and composer, championed by John Coltrane, Shepp was also in the 1960s an outspoken Black Power advocate. He wrote a pair of plays that focused on the ill-treatment of his race, and was a Black/Afro-American Studies professor at SUNY and the University of Massachusetts. Attica Blues showed him regaining his focus. Also, perhaps by design, it was one of his most accessible recordings. Though it retained Shepp's free jazz sensibilities, the album also contained nods to R&B, funk, and big band music.
I Hear the Sound is not Shepp's first live recording of Attica Blues. Like many '60s jazz survivors, Shepp eventually took refuge in Europe, especially France. In 1979 he released Attica Blues Big Band Live At The Palais Des Glaces. Apparently Shepp views I Hear the Sound as a reminder rather than a follow-up or tribute. In his typically articulate liner-notes essay, Shepp claims that, in terms of racial injustice, "Unfortunately, not much has changed" since the Attica riots. "Sometimes," he posits, "things seem to be even worse."
Despite this dour-sounding outlook, I Hear the Sound turns out to be a rather enjoyable, at times defiantly joyous experience. The original album's half-dozen primary songs are reprised, interspersed with a few additional performances. Shepp is the only holdover from either the original album or Live at the Palais Des Glaces. He has assembled a big band of mostly French musicians, with a few American performers as well.
I Hear the Sound is actually an amalgam of three different recordings made in France between September 2012 and June 2013. As with the original Attica Blues, the album's greatest appeal lies in its variety and seamless, revue-style presentation. The raw funk of "Attica Blues", with added slap bass, and the mantra-like, Sly Stone-inspired highlight "Blues For Brother G. Jackson" are balanced by the brassy drama of "Quiet Dawn" and the effortless, gentle swing of "Steam". The free-jazz experimentalism of "Goodbye Sweet Pop's" is a counterpoint with the tender, wistful "Ballad for a Child". It's easy to hear how influential this kind of approach has been on modern-day acts from King Britt and Outkast to most anyone who has ever been called "trip-hop".
The added songs fit in nicely, too. "Arms" is a sultry ballad penned by vocalist/pianist Amina Claudine Meyers, whose strong, bewitching voice powers several tracks. "The Cry of My People" is a kaleidoscopic spiritual written by trumpet player Cal Massey, who wrote "Quiet Dawn" and "Goodbye Sweet Pop's". Ellington's "Come Sunday" fits in seamlessly, as do a couple extra Shepp compositions, including the rollicking "Mama Too Tight", which closes the album with a fevered energy.
Throughout, Shepp lends his trademark freewheeling, slightly skronky saxophone work to the proceedings. His lung power and tone are quite removed from his heyday but, well into his seventies, he still has some chops. He even lends his shaky but authentic croon to a couple of tracks.
The most marked difference between I Hear the Sound and Attica Blues is in the production. The comfy, unobtrusive, distinctly-'70s vibe of the original has been replaced by a crisp, more dynamic sound that is unmistakably modern. Just listen to those cracking drums.
That a jazz survivor like Shepp would even be engaging in a project like I Hear the Sound is impressive. The original album offers a more powerful and compact version of Shepp's response to the Attica tragedy. The fresh, contemporary feel of I Hear the Sound, though, may be a more ideal place for Shepp newcomers to start. In any case, Shepp's passion for conveying the lessons of Attica seems as strong now as it did over 40 years ago.