4 August 2006
ARCHIE SHEPP - ATTICA BLUES
In the 60s political sentiments had been central to the work of musicians like Archie Shepp, Max Roach and John Coltrane. As the 70s dawned, mainstream black music made those sentiments explicit. While many jazzers adopted the innovations of James Brown, Sly Stone et al, most did it at a purely musical level. Shepp could have just added a spot of electric funk to his usual arsenal of free jazz, R'n'B and romantic Ellingtonia. Instead with 1972's Attica Blues he created a furious, tender blast of faintly psychedelic soul jazz that's a jewel in his vast, uneven discography.
The opening title track refers to the shooting of 43 inmates at the Attica Prison riot some months before. Shepp distils righteous, bristling anger into a huge, shuddering slice of funk. Two electric bassists, four percussionists and obligatory wah-wah guitars provide monster riffage under huge slabs of horns, strings and Henry Hull's urgent, desperate vocal pleading.
The album never touches those energy levels again, but finds its intensity in different ways. "Steam" is one of Shepp's loveliest tunes and gets a couple of string-soaked readings here, topped off with whirling, electronically treated soprano and Joe Lee Wilson's mellifluous vocal. "Blues for Brother George Jackson" is classic Shepp R&B - more dancefloor friendly perhaps and posessed of some fruity tenor blasts, while the gorgeous "Ballad for a Child" hints at the lush melancholic protest of What's Going On.
It's on this track that Shepp's blend of avant brutalism and Ben Webster-esque tenderness works best. Remember, this is the man that described himself as a sentimentalist, not a romantic. Solos are kept short if not sweet; the soprano outing on Cal Massey's Louis Armstrong tribute "Goodbye Sweet Pops" is one of the few that last more than a few bars.
The album closes with another Massey tune, "Quiet Dawn", sung by the composer's seven year old daughter in a faltering voice. It's not as bad as it might sound, honest, but it's an inauspicious ending to an otherwise indispensable record.
Reviewer: Peter Marsh@BBC Jazz Reviews