Archie Shepp - Attica Blues Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the landmark 1972 album from the legendary saxophonist, responding loudly and passionately to the tragic outcome of a prison uprising.

On January 26, 1972, Archie Shepp packed up his tenor and soprano saxophones and headed to A&R Recording in New York for the third and final session of an album he was planning to call Attica Blues. If he happened to flip through a newspaper that morning, Shepp would have seen a few articles relevant to his cause: the Attica Prison uprising, which had transpired four months earlier but still amounted to an unfolding story.
In its aftermath, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller appointed a bipartisan commission on penal reform, which was just issuing its first report. “We are profoundly troubled that the present correctional system reflects an anachronistic, bastille‐like philosophy,” the committee chairman told The New York Times. “We doubt that there is any real hope that it can accomplish society’s objectives today.” The quote appeared in the paper on Jan. 26, below a separate article with the headline, “Impeach Rockefeller Over Attica, A Buffalo Assemblyman Demands.”
Shepp probably wouldn’t have been surprised, or much impressed, by these indictments. What happened at Attica Correctional Facility, in upstate New York, amounted to one of the deadliest confrontations on American soil since the Civil War. On the morning of Sept. 13, 1971, state troopers opened fire on the prison in a siege-like effort to end a four-day rebellion in protest of inhumane conditions. According to a stark racial calculus, the protesting prisoners were mostly black and the assaulting troopers were mostly white. The savagery of the attack—39 people, inmates and hostages, were slain by police gunfire, with more than twice as many wounded—registered as an instant scandal and an unspeakable horror. As investigative journalist Tom Robbins characterized it several years ago, in an article for The Marshall Project, the assault on Attica was “a massive bloodletting marked by spasms of sadism.”

So it was a bold stroke for Shepp to respond to this moment with Attica Blues. It was also totally in character for him: A leading provocateur of jazz’s radical “New Thing,” he had titled his previous album Things Have Got to Change. The same Afrocentric and revolutionary energies pulse through Attica Blues, with resolute conviction but a shifting center of gravity. The album is a sociopolitical statement shaded with human complexity. There is protest in it, but also tenderness and wistfulness and hopeful rumination. It’s a landmark in part because it refuses the stoical clarity of a broadside, just as it wriggles free of the parameters that typically apply to a so-called jazz album.

Shepp came out of the avant-garde black-music tradition that proudly claimed Cecil Taylor and anointed John Coltrane. Those two lodestars were instrumental in his career: Shepp made his earliest recordings with Taylor in 1960, and when he signed a deal with Impulse! Records in ’64, it was through Coltrane’s intervention, under the label stipulation that he play Coltrane’s music. That first effort, Four For Trane, initiated a potent run of Shepp albums for Impulse!—including Fire Music, a Hall of Fame entry from ’65—that most observers filed, somewhat reductively, under “free jazz.” With all this in mind, it’s reasonable to expect that Attica Blues would open with a sorrowful dirge, like Coltrane’s “Alabama”; or in a cacophonous roil, like Coltrane’s Ascension; or in simmering rage, like “Malcolm, Malcolm, Semper Malcolm,” a spoken-word piece from Fire Music.

Instead, Attica Blues opens with wah-wah rhythm guitar, a snaking electric bass, and a clattering tambourine—signifiers of the street, in tune with the glorious stank of Funkadelic and the impudent grandeur of a blaxploitation score. Ten seconds into the title track, veteran gospel-soul singer Carl Hall (credited on the album by an alias, Henry Hull) bursts in like an emergency alarm. “I got a feeling that something ain’t going right!” he sings in a piercing, androgynous cry. “And I’m worried ’bout the human soul!” The lyrics come from a poem by Shepp’s drummer, Beaver Harris (credited on the album by his given name, William G. Harris), but it’s clear that Shepp shares the stated conviction: I’m worried about the human soul. As the song balloons into a psychedelic-funk fever dream, it quickly becomes clear that Shepp’s concerns are much bigger than, if also inextricable from, the systemic failure and heinous outcome at Attica. “Through his music here,” writes percussionist Abdul Zahir Batin in the album liner notes, “we can feel the roots of a plight.”

Shepp’s essential partner on Things Have Got to Change had been Cal Massey, a visionary trumpeter and arranger who shared his political perspective. They teamed up again for Attica Blues, and Massey, in turn, recruited Romulus Franceschini, his composing partner in a concern called The RoMas Orchestra. On “Steam,” a dreamy waltz that takes up much of the album’s first side, the flexibility of Franceschini’s string orchestration—featuring an all-star violin section of Leroy Jenkins, John Blake, and L. Shankar, along with cellists Ronald Lipscomb and Calo Scott—allows the song to morph from succor to astringency and back again. The song’s singer is Joe Lee Wilson, and his expressive baritone gives Shepp’s lyrics a tangible shape: “Summer,” he half-sings, half-sighs, “Soft as the rain/And sweet as the end of pain.” (If you have ever admired the work of Dwight Trible and Patrice Quinn in Kamasi Washington’s band, the declaratory stance of the singing should ring agreeably familiar.)

There’s an interlude between parts one and two of “Steam,” and it pairs a deep and droning solo by Jimmy Garrison, Coltrane’s longtime bassist, with the recitation of a poem by Bartholomew Gray. The poem, “Invocation to Mr. Parker,” pays homage to alto saxophonist and bebop progenitor Charlie Parker—“that driving music man/who used to wail out back.” It’s a nod to jazz lineage that might seem out of place on such a politically charged album, until you consider Shepp’s understanding of black music as unavoidably political in and of itself, a point of view he shared with poet and critic Amiri Baraka. Later, on side two, there comes “Good Bye Sweet Pops,” Massey’s elegy for Louis Armstrong, who’d died in the summer of ’71. The song has no words, but still manages to hail Armstrong as a village elder; it’s a regal, bittersweet ballad that kicks into double time for Shepp’s breezy yet commanding soprano solo. The album’s thematic framework invites a reading of “Sweet Pops” as a valiant soldier, weathering so much injustice in his time, and finding the ultimate dignity in release. Sweet as the end of pain.

The way that all of these songs and spoken-word passages swirl one into the next speaks to the realization of Shepp’s ambitions on Attica Blues. (Praise is also due to his producer, Ed Michel.) The way it all coheres is what makes Attica Blues one of the more successful concept albums in jazz history. But Shepp would probably object to at least two words in that encomium—starting with “jazz,” given his public disavowal of the term as a white man’s yoke for African American music. The other might be “concept,” with its lofty aesthetic baggage. “I don’t believe in the word ‘art,’” he told critic John Litweiler in 1974. “It’s, to me, not functional, it’s passive. It’s bourgeois in the sense that art develops at a point when people have leisure time. That’s like the Platonic ideal, something that can be observed as art, something outside experience.”

Attica Blues seeks the inside track of experience. The album cover is a Chuck Stewart photograph of Shepp at work, seated at a piano with a tenor saxophone lying prone beneath his gaze. But what he appears to be studying, as he smokes a cigarette, is sheet music. Over his left shoulder is a bookcase crammed with books and records; over his right is an Olympics ’68 poster, showing Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the podium. A keen student of revolutionary politics, Shepp was well aware that the Attica uprising had a precipitating event clear across the country: the killing of author and activist George Jackson, shot dead by prison guards during a failed escape at San Quentin.

“Blues For Brother George Jackson,” which opens Side Two of Attica Blues, is Shepp’s paean to this fallen hero—and probably the most straightforward piece on the album, a 12-bar form with a grooving ostinato and a polished blare of horns. Shepp’s tenor solo, which follows a squawking alto statement by Marion Brown, exudes a characteristically robust charisma. Despite the temptation to memorialize Jackson in words—as Bob Dylan had in “George Jackson,” which was rushed to release the previous November—Shepp lets the soul in the song speak for itself.

That is, until “Invocation: Ballad For a Child” fades in, featuring another Beaver Harris poem; “I would rather be a plant than a man in this land,” it begins. As on a similar interlude from side one, the solemn recitation is by William Kunstler, a radical lawyer who’d been an appointed witness to the doomed negotiations at Attica, and who would later defend several of its prisoners at trial. The very presence of Kunstler may be the purest act of provocation on Attica Blues. But it also underscores a core conviction about the uprising, which came about because the largely African American prison population objected to subhuman treatment and brutal living conditions. The massacre that followed was just a dire confirmation of their plight. As Kunstler intones in “Invocation: Attica Blues,” speaking words by Harris: “Some people think that they are in their rights/When on command they take a black man’s life.”

We don’t need to draw an explicit parallel with the Black Lives Matter movement to recognize the undying urgency of Shepp’s argument. We don’t need to study the scourge of mass incarceration to understand that Attica Blues has lost none of its relevance. And we don’t need to strain, at least not much, to grasp the faith that the album places in the purity of a child. On “Ballad For a Child,” the bittersweet, Marvin Gaye-like reflection that follows Kunstler’s second reading, Carl Hall’s gospel vocals return. “But what the whole world really needs,” he sings, flipping into his buttery falsetto, “is a baby’s smile.”

The earnest sentimentality of that lyric might feel gauzy and credulous on an album so mired in hard realities—an impression that Shepp readily disarms by concluding Attica Blues with a song called “Quiet Dawn.” Composed by Massey as an Afro-soul bossa nova, it features a stirring vocal by the composer’s daughter Waheeda Massey, who was in grade school at the time.

The orchestration on “Quiet Dawn,” credited to RoMas, makes it one of the most vividly textured pieces on Attica Blues. The string section toggles between a quiet shimmer and a twitchy pizzicato, while the brass and reed sections meld into a soulful mass. Shepp’s rhythm section on the track—Garrison on bass, Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and Billy Higgins on drums, with several percussionists—maintains a strong pull without upsetting the song’s tonal balance. Shepp delivers his most bravura tenor solo, notes pouring out of his horn as if from a spigot.

But it’s the small, determined voice of Waheeda Massey that you remember after the song and the album are done. “Quiet Dawn” doesn’t have the most singable melody on the album, and her intonation often lands under a given pitch. That imperfection speaks to the innocence and vulnerability of a child—but young Waheeda also exudes a steady, untroubled self-assurance.

You can almost picture her gazing out toward the horizon line as she sings her father’s deceptively simple lyrics, more in reassurance than in resignation, at the top of the song:

It’s quiet
At dawn
And life
Moves on.
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Archie Shepp - Attica Blues Music Album Reviews Archie Shepp - Attica Blues Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, May 10, 2020 Rating:

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