After delivering some of the greatest jazz records of the middle sixties and then spending some time in Paris at the end of that decade and the beginning of the Seventies, Archie Shepp returned to America and retooled his compelling music for larger ensembles and with a nod to the funk, soul and R&B that had been taking a lot of the younger audiences away from jazz.
It would be easy to "sell out" in that kind of context, but Shepp used his leadership skills, his strong political bent, and his move to large ensemble playing to great effect, especially on a classic album like Attica Blues.
Recorded in late January 1972, just after the ferment that resulted from the riot in Attica State Penitentiary in New York, the album opens with the staggeringly funky title track with some of the most soulful singing you'll ever hear from the amazing Joshie Armstead.
The two-part "Steam" begins with a languid, flowing ballad with strings that is a direct contrast in style to the title track and then takes on a harder, stronger edge in its concluding section, but Joe Lee Wilson, who recorded three albums with Shepp during 1971-72, is highly effective in his soulful vocalizing.
"Blues for Brother George Jackson" was dedicated to the controversial Black Panther figure who was sent to prison for stealing $70 in an armed robbery in 1961 and joined the black nationalist party while incarcerated. Jackson was killed in August 1971 trying to lead an escape before his trial for the slaying the prior year of a prison guard was slated to begin. This tune, however, reflects a sophisticated, cool atmosphere, rather than anything that might evoke anger or other harder emotions. Particularly compelling is the percussion which percolates beneath the horns with great effectiveness.
Another languid and gorgeous tune is "Ballad for a Child," with a great vocal from Armstead riding over a background of strings. This is followed by another string-laden highlight, "Good-Bye, Sweet Pops," by the fluegelhorn player and composer Cal Massey. This tribute to Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971, is a great example of ensemble writing and playing.
Massey's "Quiet Dawn" has another great multi-layered sound for a larger ensemble and some listeners would probably be put off by the vocalizing of Massey's young daughter, Waheeda (probably not unlike Ornette Coleman's son Denardo playing drums on 1966's The Empty Foxhole?). This listener finds the singing beguiling and assumes that using her was a way at getting to an innocence and wonder that the tune looks to bring forward. Shepp has a nice solo with a great driving accompaniment during the tune, which has tended to grow on this blogger over time.
Attica Blues is a diverse record, showing Archie Shepp's ability to express his musical (and political) ideas across a broad musical spectrum. There are a number of great musicians on this record, including the leader, Massey, bassist Jimmy Garrison, Marion Brown on alto sax, violinist Leroy Jenkins, pianist Dave Burrell, drummers Billy Higgins and Beaver Harris (who wrote two of the pieces alone and contributed two others with Shepp), and others.
Worth hearing just for the phenomenal title track alone, the record has a lot of other highlights and is well worth a listen.