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Archie Shepp’s Deep Blues

Catching up with an out-jazz veteran

Archie Shepp
Archie Shepp at Belgium's Jazz a Liege festival, may 2014
Archie Shepp at Belgium's Jazz a Liege festival, may 2014
Archie Shepp, August 1964

In September 1971, a riot broke out at the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York State, leaving 43 people dead, including 10 officers and hostages. Despite their initial denials, state troopers and National Guard soldiers, under orders from Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were responsible for all of the deaths. A few months later, saxophonist Archie Shepp released Attica Blues, a large-group recording that responded vigorously to the uprising with a muscular combination of jazz, funk and blues. He reprised the album for a 1979 live recording in France and returned to it once again in 2012 to commemorate the riot’s 40th anniversary.

Attica Blues epitomized Shepp’s combination of sociopolitical fervor and free-jazz vehemence. Raised in Philadelphia, the saxophonist became a close collaborator to avant-garde innovators like Cecil Taylor and Bill Dixon and cofounded the New York Contemporary Five featuring Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Don Moore and J.C. Moses. Shepp was championed by John Coltrane, whose support led to a string of records on Impulse! throughout the 1960s that provided the new music with some of its most frequently used nicknames: “Fire Music,” from his 1965 album of that name, and the “New Thing,” from his split LP with Coltrane, New Thing at Newport.

That string of releases ending in the mid-1970s remain Shepp’s best-known recordings. Damage to his embouchure near the end of the decade weakened his playing, reducing his ability to generate his trademark honks and squeaks, which made it seem as if his voice was too big to be contained by his instrument. He continued to play and record, working closely with pianist Dave Burrell and incorporating poetry and vocals into more of his work. He pulled back increasingly from the bleeding edge of the music and returned to his first love, the blues. He also taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for more than 30 years before his retirement in 2001, but performed less and less in his native country, so much so that many listeners have long assumed the Massachusetts-based artist moved to Paris decades ago.

The new Attica Blues Orchestra is, aside from a few guests, composed of European players, reflecting the increased opportunities for him to work across the pond. On the new CD, recorded live at a pair of French jazz festivals in 2012 and 2013, the band is joined by vocalists Amina Claudine Myers, Marion Rampal and Cécile McLorin Salvant as well as drummer Famoudou Don Moye, bassist Reggie Washington and, on one track, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Many of those artists were also onstage in early May at the Festival International Jazz à Liège in Belgium as Shepp, nattily attired in a black pinstriped suit and matching fedora, led the 25-piece band in a lively performance.

The concert was preceded by a recording of Shepp telling the story of Attica, saying, “The newspapers called it a riot; we called it a rebellion.” He likened the modern prison system to “modern-day slavery,” ending by suggesting, “Perhaps we’re all prisoners.” The upbeat performance that followed didn’t dwell on such pessimistic thoughts, but Shepp, as always, had laid the groundwork for further thought. Backstage at Liège’s Palais des Congrès after the show, he returned to some of those themes.

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Originally Published