I Hear the Sound, the soon-to-be-released live album from saxophonist Archie Shepp and a new edition of his Attica Blues Orchestra, is music with a message. It is not necessarily a new message. For the most part it reprises, with some additions, the music on Shepp’s original 1972 Attica Blues album, but it is a message that he feels still resonates.
In September of 1971, a riot broke out in New York’s notorious Attica prison. Inmates took over a portion of the prison. They held 33 guards and civilians as hostages, demanding negotiations over prison conditions. After some days of stalemate, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller authorized the use of force to end the stand-off. In the event 39 people, 29 prisoners and 10 hostages, were killed.
The Attica Blues album was Shepp’s reaction to what he saw not as a riot, but a rebellion. The prisoners were less criminals than minority victims of an oppressive government. Fast forward to the new century and, despite some significant social and political change, witness the re-election of President Obama, there is still much to be done to relieve minority repression. As Shepp says on the new album case, “Certainly some gave their lives hoping to change the world. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Perhaps, in some way, we are all prisoners.”
I Hear the Sound collects performances from three French concerts by a contemporary resurrection of the Attica Blues Orchestra, featuring some of the original members supplemented by a crew of French jazz musicians and recruits from the Paris Conservatory. What the liner notes call the “historical American core” consists of Shepp, pianists Amina Claudine Myers and Tom McClung, percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, bassist Reggie Washington, and conductor Jimmy Owens.
The album’s 11 tracks offer almost an hour and 20 minutes of exciting blues-based music, with some gritty vocals from Shepp, who sings with zealous passion, supplemented by Myers, Marion Rampal, and Cecile McLoren Salvant. Unfortunately when one of the ladies takes the lead, the album notes fail to identify the singer. Suffice it to say that collectively these ladies deliver the goods.
With the exception of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” when at times the orchestra seems to be channeling the Ellington orchestra and Myers’ “Arms,” all the songs are by Shepp and his original collaborator Cal Massey. “Attica Blues” opens the disc, setting the tone for the rest of the album which moves from the moaning blues of “The Cry of My People,” at times echoing a kind of chain gang chant, to the funkier, almost rocking blues of “Mama Too Tight,” which closes the set.
And for the xenophobic among us who might be grinding their teeth at the thought of musicians from the Paris Conservatory playing the blues, it turns out that the blues know no borders. Either these are artists who know something about what they are doing, or else what Shepp is playing is catchy. The Attica Blues Orchestra in its 2013 configuration is a worthy successor to the original.