Archie Shepp

Attica Blues Big Band

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From the outset, Archie Shepp's terminally misunderstood Attica Blues on Impulse during the 1970s was an attempt by the saxophonist and composer to bring together the various kinds of African American musics under one heading and have them all express the conscience of the day. His ensemble featured singers, string players, horns, drums, guitars, etc. The sounds were a Gordian knot of jazz, free music, R&B, soul, groove, and even funk. In 1979 Shepp was given the opportunity to realize the project with an ensemble of his choosing at the Palais des Glaces in Paris (New York was already courting Wimpton Marsalis). Shepp chose 30 musicians and director/conductor Ray Copeland. Among the throng were saxophonists Marion Brown, John Purcell, Patience Higgins, and John Ware. Malachi Thompson led a five-trumpet section, and Steve Turre led the trombones, a young Brandon Ross played guitar, Avery Sharpe was one of two bassists, Clifford Jarvis held down the drum chair, Shepp played all his horns and piano -- though Art Matthews was the primary pianist on the gig. There were four vocalists and a string section. None of this would mean anything, of course, if the music weren't bad to the bone. From the opening moments of the "Attica Blues Theme, Pt. One" it becomes obvious that, with its drop-dead funky bassline and wailing soul vocals that create the mood, this will be a celebratory evening of education, protest, and groove. From here, Shepp moves the band into "Steam," with the funk and anger already present. But this track is far more laid-back in its big band arrangement than it was on the Shepp's Inner City version of some years before. It features a gorgeous vocal by Joe Lee Wilson, who has the chops of Sammy Davis Jr. and the depth of Big Joe Turner. And here is where Attica Blues truly begins, as "Steam" reaches its swinging nadir, and Shepp begins to fold in works by other composer such as Cal Massey ("Quiet Dawn"), Randy Weston ("Hi-Fly"), and Dave Burrell ("Crucificado") in with his own works, and the varying elements of free jazz and Latin music begin to make their presences felt on the R&B and swing accents that Attica Blues opens up for the magical treatise it is. Shepp's own playing is fell of depth and passion, though he leaves his fire music at home, preferring to work inside traditions and allow the music's freedom to dictate its own expression in places rather than as a whole. The history lesson moves on well into the second set with Frank Foster's "Simone" and Ramsey Lewis' gospel-tinged "Skippin," before coming out on the other end with a majestic resurgence of "Attica Blues" to bring it in. This is big band arranging and execution at its best; Shepp and Coleman make it all sound so easy, though charts are anything, but when you're fusing together so many different kinds of music. This is the high point of the latter part of Shepp's career, and it's a cultural crime that it's not available on an American label and sold as a work that belongs next to Mingus' Ah Um, Miles' Bitches Brew, Ornette's Science Fiction, and other notable works by the masters.

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