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As of its 50th edition in 2016, there have been over 150 albums recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, including massive box sets documenting the long relationships it enjoyed with Miles Davis and it continues with guitarist John McLaughlin. Many of them are enduring statements from major artists of all stripes; a few approach, if not completely attain classic status; but only two volumes signaled a decades-long movement, not with bombast or fanfare, but with stealth, and delivered by the most unlikely messenger. And, they documented the same concert.

The movement heralded at Montreux in 1975 is the most misunderstood of the many misunderstood movements in jazz history – postmodernism. The tenets of postmodernism elude most jazz historians, who characterize it merely as a recasting of traditionalism, a relatively inclusive iteration being the dualistic model of “looking back” and “looking forward” Alyn Shipton posits in A New History of Jazz. Unintentionally, Shipton’s model feeds into an insidious off-mark framing device in discussing postmodern jazz, the whatever principle, which stipulates – to disfigure the opening line of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” – that anything is jazz if you say it is. The problem in discussing postmodernism in jazz lies in the fundamental disconnect between an art form that values improvisation and those that value conceit.

One of Shipton’s prime examples of “looking forward” is Dave Douglas, whose affinity with the folkloric music of the Balkans yielded some of the freshest jazz of the 1990s. However, as Shipton accurately reports, it was that affinity – an emotional connection to the region and its people – that prompted the writing of Witness, arguably the trumpeter’s magnum opus of the decade, in response to the genocidal war in the former Yugoslavia. It is this emotionalism that distinguishes jazz postmodernism from postmodern art’s conceit-based conflation of high and low art, doctrinally driven by the proffer that only shock, irony and parody can survive critical scrutiny. By this standard, not only does Douglas fail the postmodernist litmus test, but so too does every artist Shipton namechecks in his discussion, a wide berth encompassing tenor saxophonists Scott Hamilton and David Murray. Indeed, a doctrinal postmodernist jazz history would enthrone the Lounge Lizards.

One of the ironies of jazz in the 1960s is that the most commercially successful of its radical innovations were led by established, commercially successful artists, and necessarily so. Only John Coltrane could have given the New Thing any market traction, and only Miles Davis could have paved the way for fusion’s rise. It therefore makes perfectly paradoxical postmodern sense that the still-prevailing traditionalist brand of jazz postmodernism presented at Montreux in 1975 would be articulated by one of the more polarizing exponents of the ‘60s avant-garde – Archie Shepp. Shepp had not only become a lightning rod for his music, but for being what Cook called “that most terrifying thing to respectable society, a witheringly articulate and intelligent black artist: his numerous interviews and open letters set out a devastating critique of his environment, his business, and the hoops an Africa-American musician was still obliged to jump through.”

If traditionalism is an overt identification with what has come before – even if “before” is measureable in just months – Shepp’s was in evidence from the start. On his 1962 Savoy quartet date co-led with Bill Dixon, one side is devoted to the trumpeter’s compositions, while the other – presumably chosen by Shepp – is comprised of a notably kitsch-free version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” and “Peace,” which demonstrated how Ornette Coleman’s compositions could be persuasively interpreted outside Coleman’s already long shadow. Shepp’s Impulse debut, Four for Trane, is not usually considered to be a retrospective; however, Shepp interpreted only compositions Coltrane no longer played in 1964. Shepp not only recorded Ellington ballads on four different albums between ‘65 and ‘69, but included “Prelude to a Kiss” on two. The first was a free-standing version on Fire Music, which, along with a steamy “The Girl from Ipanema,” undercut the stereotype of a strident Black avant-garde then permeating the jazz press.

The second version, however, is the more important, as it was part of Shepp’s vital first foray into larger compositional forms in 1966: the genre-mashing “A Portrait of Robert Thompson (as a young man).” Taking up the entire A side of Mama Too Tight, “Portrait” is similar to the paintings of the dedicatee, in that it mixed the abstract and the figurative with an infectious abandon. Shepp’s growls, bellows and screams of bloody murder lead opening salvos of free, grapeshot-like polyphony, which eventually melt away to reveal “Prelude;” however, the savor of anticipated romance Ellington so precisely pinpointed is unsustainable, and Shepp is ripped from his Webster-informed lyricism and thrown back into the maelstrom. But, instead of ending in an immolated heap, the piece veers into smoky jazz voicings and ends with a rousing rally-‘round-the-flag march. In doing so, Shepp introduces an element of Borgesian post-modernism into jazz – the juxtaposition of materials from different eras, erasing their chronological relationships to create new resonances between them, positing the notion that one thing does not lead to another, but that they’ve co-existed all along.

“A Portrait of Robert Thompson (as a young man)” is the first of several pivot points that led to Shepp’s 1975 Montreux performance, the most crucial of which took place far from a recording studio or a bandstand. The first of these occurred in the late ‘60s when Shepp visited his parents in Philadelphia. Before he undertook raising a family, Shepp’s father played banjo in bands in South Carolina, and had shown his son some chords. Like many beloved mothers, Shepp’s sang in the home. Shortly after becoming a NEA Jazz Master in 2016, Shepp recalled that during his visit, his mother asked: “‘Are you still playing the little songs that have no tune?’ I realized that if my music couldn’t communicate with my mother, I was doing something wrong.” This gestalt was soon compounded by his mother’s sudden death at the relatively young age of 50 in 1970, and speaking with a family friend at the funeral. “She said, ‘Archie, I have all your records. When will you play something I can understand?’”

Recorded in 1969, For Losers supports the idea that Shepp was moving further away from the implicit elitism of the jazz avant-garde and towards a contemporary Black music populism; but, the boogaloo grooves, torchy ballads (including Ellington’s “I Got It Bad,” replete with Chinalin Sharp’s Billie Holiday-inspired delivery), and explosions of free, rubato polyphony were synthesized into a larger statement. It is during this period of confronting the inaccessibility of his work by his parents’ generation that Shepp recorded three subsequent Impulse albums that seamlessly – and therefore all the more provocatively – entwined sanctified gospel, cosmopolitan jazz, and steaming funk, underscored the African in African American music and communitarianism, and indicted oppression in both its most violently horrific and its nauseatingly banal forms. It was music his family’s friend would have surely understood.

Because they were made over a three-year period ending in 1972, Things Have Got to Change, Attica Blues, and The Cry of My People have been considered as discrete volumes. When considered as a trilogy, the albums offer a comparably panoramic view of the African American condition in the aftermath of the King assassination as Black, Brown and Beige, Ellington’s “tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” did in 1943, another convulsive historical moment shaped by real progress in the quest for equality – the Fair Employment Act (albeit applicable only to Federal employees) and Federal court ordered desegregation of passenger trains – and the use of thousands of Federal troops to put down a days-long riot in Detroit. Each album, when heard in chronological order, traces a narrative that repeats throughout African American history: Things Have Got to Change speaks to the ever-mounting pressures of the African American reality of poverty and suppression; Attica Blues captures how the inevitable explosion of rage reverberates in community life; and The Cry of My People honors how Black folk find grace in family, faith and tradition.

While each album has its own essence, they share a core of collaborators, composer/arranger Cal Massey being first among equals. Shepp knew Massey when the saxophonist was coming up in Philly during the late 1950s. The trumpeter led an ensemble with a rhythm section comprised of Tyner, future Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Al “Tootie’ Heath – trumpeter Donald Byrd and Coltrane occasionally sat in the horn sections – playing compositions that were recorded by Philadelphia luminaries like Coltrane, drummer Philly Joe Jones and trumpeter Lee Morgan. Unfortunately, Massey blew his one shot at leading a record date – Blues for Coltrane, made for Candid in 1961, remained unissued until the mid-1980s, presumably because of its curiously ragged ensemble passages. Subsequently, Massey remained in Philadelphia, growing as a community presence, honing a distinctive compositional voice and a unique partnership with composer Romulus Franceschini, whose own contemporary music aesthetic embraced jazz, electronic music and early American folk forms. Already working as a team by the making of Things Have Got to Change, the politically active Massey and Franceschini formed the RoMas Orchestra in 1970, performing several benefit concerts for the Black Panther Party in New York.

Dozens of musicians of varied stripes contributed to the three albums, including R&B guitarist Cornell Dupree, Indian violinist Lakshinarayana Shankar, and saxophonist and Ascension participant Marion Brown; pianist Dave Burrell, trombonist/arranger Charles Majid Greenlee, and drummer Beaver Harris would perform at the Montreux festival with Shepp; but, the salient contributor to the trilogy was singer Joe Lee Wilson. The classically trained Wilson was already on the cusp of stardom, having tied for first place on NBC’s Talent Search with Sly and the Family Stone in 1968. His prize was a Columbia recording contract, but the resulting sessions were immediately consigned to the vaults, presumably for eternity. Wilson had a captivating bass-baritone voice that could thunder boom one moment and hover like fog the next, and he was equally at ease crooning plush ballads and screaming the blues with abandon. Wilson’s versatility was severely tested over the course of the three albums, meriting a “Featuring the voice of Joe Lee Wilson” credit on the front cover of Things Have Got to Change. While his roles on Attica Blues and The Cry of My People were limited, he left indelible marks on those albums, as well.

In terms of message, Things Have Got to Change was right on time, the fraying of the propulsive chants sung by men, women and children on two side-long tracks into cries of “Gimme my money” and “Change, goddamn it” reflecting the despair that set in following assassination-triggered riots and the rise of Richard Nixon (who picked Spiro Agnew as his running mate because of the overwhelming force with which the Maryland governor crushed the uprising in Baltimore). The power of this post-King message is such that the tender Massey-penned entr’acte, “Dr. King, The Peaceful Warrior,” a duet that finds Shepp’s breathy tenor swirling with the heavy tremolo of the composer’s electric piano, seems sentimental, even hollow.

In terms of materials and methods, however, the album was ahead of its time. On “Money Blues” and the title piece there is a thorough mashing of buoyant polyrhythms from a quartet of percussionists, horn riffs echoing contemporary funk milestones like James Brown’s In the Jungle Groove, futuristic synthesized sounds, and the Wilson-led voices. Additionally, there are stark contrasts among the soloists, the ambivalence of Shepp’s snarling and soaring lines are offset by the plainspoken lyricism of flautist James Spaulding and violinist Leroy Jenkins. Unlike previous Shepp albums, none of the elements brought to bear on Things Have Got to Change are separable; remove one and the ceremonial cloth unravels, a characteristic essential to jazz post-modernism. The two lengthy tracks approximate a Nam June Paik wall of video monitors flashing images of everything from flowers to atomic blasts that congeals into a metaphor for information overload, their gut-punching power obscuring Shepp’s turning of the page on an era of jazz modernism’s entwinement with social progress and spiritual actuality.

Few phenomena rock the American psyche like slaughter – at least for a news cycle or two. That was about how long the bloodbath triggered by Nelson Rockefeller to end the Attica prison riot shook the country at large in September, 1971. For Shepp, however, Attica signaled that the aspirational jazz modernist message of Coltrane and others needed to be amended, if not supplanted by a ferocious oppositional message. This took the form of the title track that opened Attica Blues. From the first strains of cranking wah-wah guitar and women back-up singers working up to a wail, it’s clear that this is no mere walk across 110th Street. However, only when rifle-butted between the ears by the full force of RoMas’ orchestration – a bulldozer-like mass of rhythms for which the term “funk” is only an approximation, highlighted by the guts-spewing back-up singers and bowstring-fraying cries from the strings, that lead singer Henry Hull rides like an apocalyptic horseman – does the listener realizes that Shepp chartered the express bus to Hell. Mercifully, it is barely a four-minute tour.

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, cross fades between tracks on rock albums connoted consciousness in mid-alteration. As a rule, they don’t work on jazz albums; Teo Macero’s mixing of Miles Davis’ seminal electric albums being the rare exception because of their psychedelic impact. Particularly with a track that, within seconds, begs the question of how Shepp could possibly follow up such a cathartic performance, a cross fade was an improbable gambit. It worked on Attica Blues because of the unlikeliness of what followed: the 14-second recitation of a short Afrocentric existentialist poem recited with utter flatness by the self-described radical lawyer William Kunstler, who gained national prominence for his successful defense of the Chicago Seven, and defended prisoners in Attica’s aftermath. As he concludes, strings are brought up in the mix and, within seconds, the listener is plopped into the lushness of “Steam.” A waltz that gains loft bar by bar, “Steam” is Wilson at his best, at turns forceful, tender, jubilant, and vulnerable, his phrasing dovetailed by Shepp’s soprano. After the assault of “Attica Blues” and the strangeness of the Kunstler recitation, the semi-sweet soar of “Steam” is startling.

And, it is short-lived. As the effervescent strings fade, Shepp takes another unexpected turn – a depths-plumbing solo by Jimmy Garrison. Although he has a singular legacy for his work with the classic Coltrane quartet, the bassist infrequently soloed; and when he did, Garrison often strummed the bass like an oversized guitar, blending flamenco, raga and other Third World string music traditions. Here, Garrison exemplifies the idea that less is more, which is far more easily attainable with a sound like his – dark, lustrous, and a tad ominous. Garrison’s solos with Coltrane were lengthy; suggesting the saxophonist’s determination to work material from every conceivable angle was shared by the bassist. However, Garrison has barely a minute to build slow-decaying notes and skeletal phrases into one of his most profound statements before poet Bartholomew Gray recites “Invocation to Mr. Parker,” which utilizes the repeated line structure of blues lyrics to idealize a long gone, mystery-shrouded musician. By juxtaposing a conjuring poetic tradition that stretches back to Africa and the collage-like application of Marion Brown’s late-arriving percussion and flute, Shepp creates another conceptual space – abstract save for a yellow moon – but, again, only momentarily before ending the A side with another surprise, a reprise of “Steam.”

This improbable journey is absent of any Dantean incrementalism of descending into Inferno, circle by circle, climbing through Purgatorio, and entering into glorious Paradiso; instead, Shepp jettisons the listener every few minutes to another, unforeseen world. This discontinuity in and of itself has post-modern qualities; but, Shepp is also representing the African American community at a moment of crisis, one in whey they have to make sense of carnage, the sweetness of love and everything in between, a representation that has to utilize every possible aspect of community life to achieve its full artistic impact. With the A side of Attica Blues having established the method of Shepp’s journey, and partially outlined its contours, the B side completes the picture.

With “Blues for Brother George Jackson,” Shepp again commences with testimony to the syndrome that occurs when things have got to change and they don’t – the pressurization of unaddressed grievances boils over, resulting in desperate violent rebellion, and an end-game of incarceration and/or death. The prison-radicalized Jackson became legend for the attempted break-out of San Quentin prison that left him, three guards and two other inmates dead, one that was perpetuated by his two incisive volumes of letters and tracts, and an epistolary relationship with radical academic Angela Davis. Jackson’s death was the spark that ignited Attica.

Shepp’s dedication to Jackson does not have the singeing heat of “Attica Blues;” instead, Shepp writes an almost triumphal line. Absent the title, it could be heard simply as a hard-hitting blowing vehicle. For the most part, the solos are muscular, with trumpeter Roy Burrowes and Shepp, on tenor, launching powerful opening and closing salvos, respectively. Sandwiched between Burrowes and Shepp, Brown delivers a strangely inchoate alto saxophone solo, comprised of strangled notes and muffled textures that fail to create any forward momentum. Given Brown’s ability to project a wiry, gritty post-bop swing, and the impressionistic propensities of his early ‘70s albums like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, it is conceivable that the solo portrays life ebbing out of a bullet-riddled body – a disturbing moment, regardless.

Kunstler reappears in the ensuing cross fade to recite Beaver Harris’ lyrics for “Ballad for a Child;” when hovering strings rise behind the dyspeptic-sounding counselor, and Hull begins to resuscitate the lyrics, it becomes clear that Shepp already understands the components of the emergent Philadelphia soul of the ‘70s, and how to slip smoldering tenor asides between the strings and Hull’s velvety tenor. The contrast between “Blues for Brother George Jackson” and “Ballad for a Child” mirrors that of the title track and “Steam;” but whereas “Steam” was a jazz tune with Sweet Philly touches, “Ballad for a Child” was suitable for riders of the quiet storm like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. However, concluding Attica Blues with two Massey compositions that, in addition to giving the B side its own distinctive shape, end the album with communitarian messages about generational transition and optimism for the future. Presumably a farewell to Louis Armstrong, “Good Bye Sweet Pops” seesaws between a lament-tinged theme and a double-time passage, but without the seismic volatility associated with Mingus; although there are flourishes in the orchestration that put a bit of a heave behind the main theme and more snap to the up-tempo section, this is a remarkably warm statement.

However, the selection of Massey’s 7 year-old daughter Waheeda to sing the closing “Quiet Dawn” was the album-defining stroke of cognitive dissonance-inducing genius. Her slight earnest voice floats over the most conventional jazz orchestra chart of the lot, one that gently pivots between wistful melody and broad flourishes from the strings and horns – it also provides a detail-rich backdrop for a sweeping Shepp tenor solo. In terms of the album’s structure and polemics, “Quiet Dawn” is an elegant judo maneuver that neutralizes the then lingering stereotype of Shepp as the two-dimensional radical. Whereas “Attica Blues” opened the album with an in-your-face image of brutal violence, “Quiet Dawn” offered a glimpse of a new day through the voice of a child, making it is difficult, if not impossible to pigeonhole Attica Blues as merely a protest album, as it was upon its release. It is a critique that emphasizes community as the cultural and educational predicate, recognizes the role of the imagination as a bulwark against oppression, and articulates an image of the necessary angel – a musical child.

Yoked with the binary of “mainstream” and “avant-garde,” jazz critics generally failed to understand Shepp’s widening perspective on his later impulse albums, concluding they were hit-and-miss affairs riddled with pastiche. Given that the type of ecumenicalism now pervading the jazz press was then in short supply, Joe H. Klee’s effusive five-star review of The Cry of My People in Down Beat merits a close reading, as the joining, if not the synthesis of sacred and secular African American music sought by Shepp and Massey was then a daunting proposition. Historically, the gulf between sacred and secular music required a career-defining choice by singers like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin; even the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ worldwide hit with “Oh Happy Day” in 1969 failed to bridge it on a long-term basis, proving to be an Aquarian Age fluke.

Subsequently, even an album that swayed back and forth between gospel and jazz pieces was a rarity; opening the album with “Rest Enough” (tellingly sub-titled “Song for Mother”) – a straight-up gospel song without jazz flourishes, on which Shepp does not play – bordering on the audacious. The contrast with “Attica Blues” as an album-opening statement couldn’t be starker. The mid-tempo “Rest Enough” is as comforting and soul-renewing as its predecessor was harrowing, much to the credit of Shepp’s facility with the idiom. Shepp’s stripped-down arrangement allows lead singer Peggie Blue, who is every bit the presence of the Hawkins Singers’ Dorothy Combs Morrison, and five back-up singers to fill the stereo field with maximum impact.

Few albums have as rewarding a culminating statement as strong as “Rest Enough;” its placement at the beginning of the album sets a very high bar, particularly when the success of the album depends upon an unfettered pendulum swing between vernaculars. “Rest Enough” is followed by the first of two Massey tone poems that rank as his most profound recorded works, “A Prayer” compounds the gravitas of spirituals and the sonic weight of an orchestral palette of six voices, seven strings, a four-horn front line and an augmented rhythm section. Its foreboding opening passage gives way to a horns-fattened vamp Shepp commandeers for a sinewy – and compact – soprano solo. The pendulum then swings back: led by a bursting-with-joy Blue, Shepp’s “All God’s Children Got a Home in the Universe” is the type of exhilarating gospel that makes arms-waving matrons wobble and collapse, and proves to be a potent vehicle for a solo by Shepp, whose voice-inspired tenor sound is a surprisingly good fit for the material. Joe Lee Wilson is brought on for “The Lady,” a melancholy ballad dedicated to Billie Holiday. Wilson’s invocation of the gardenia-wearing Madonna is palpably empathetic, Shepp’s soprano practically weeps, and RoMas’ arrangement is simultaneously lush and eerie, ending the side not with a hallelujah but an ellipsis.

Massey’s title piece opens the B side with most of the components that make “Prayer” equally compelling – spirituals-rooted thematic materials; force-magnifying interplay between sections of the orchestra and the chorus; a congas-underscored vamp; pungent solos by trumpeter Charles McGhee and Shepp. But, instead of taking the listener back to church, Shepp points to Africa via Beaver Harris’ “African Drums.” Propelled by insistent 3-over-2 rhythms, pentatonic thematic material, and a Dave Burrell arrangement that replaces Massey’s well-placed dramatic flourishes with leaner, fiercer features – and Shepp’s hottest solo of the set – “African Drums” is a powerful penultimate performance, a snap zoom out from the close up of the dynamic of African American sacred and secular music that reframes the entire album in terms of the Diaspora.

Shepp’s decision to close the album with Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is brilliant on a few counts: its history, highlighted by Mahalia Jackson’s acapella version with Ellington, is richly resonant; its message of imminent communion is spot-on for Shepp’s purposes; and its balm-like quality leaves the listener fulfilled. Charles Majid Greenlee’s arrangement frames its glory without ostentatiousness. And then there is Wilson – phrase by phrase, he entwines lyric and melody with every trick in the jazz singer’s bag: sudden shifts from sotto voce to window-rattling extortions; fine gradations of color within a single phrase; seamless morphs between personae – in this case, a back and forth between the world-worn suppliant and the jubilant celebrant – and all delivered with ease and economy.

“Come Sunday” brings Shepp full circle and then some. Because it is such a grand finale – not just for The Cry of My People, but the entire trilogy – it is easy not to hear Shepp’s solo as a foreshadowing statement. It is an important marker in the run-up to Shepp’s mid-‘70s reemergence as an exponent of jazz post-modernism and its initial projection of the tradition as a progressive force. It put to rest the nagging criticism that Shepp did not have granular knowledge of the styles of Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and the other tenor titans, but merely the knack for cutting and pasting snippets of their work onto the larger expressionistic canvases associated with the avant-garde – itself a post-modern tactic. Extracting more than a passing resemblance to his forbearers in his rather lengthy solo is a low-yield, time-consuming exercise. Given its solemnity, “Come Sunday” isn’t the best vehicle to haul out an inventory of devices and incite a chorus of namechecks. Instead, Shepp dives deep into the song, caresses every contour, turns every phrase, and shades every note, as if he’s done so for decades; subsequently, it is his maturity that speaks through the solo, more so than his literacy.

Klee understood what he was hearing was not just another jazz record, but a larger testament. He one-ups annotator Bill Hasson’s anthropologically tinged pronouncement that the album “must be seen as an artefact and the creative artists in it must be viewed as those committed transmitters of the cultural continuum.” “This is the prophet come down from the mountain to walk among the people,” Klee dryly concluded without irony or hyperbole. For Klee, “A Prayer” and the title piece are “gems;” “Come Sunday” is “cause for celebration;” and “Rest Enough” and “All God’s Children Got a Place in the Universe” are “prime examples of the new Archie Shepp,” who “has managed to play music which communicates to an audience without compromising his quest for the new and untried, untired and untrite”

The problem with being a prophet is that you’re ahead of the times and – implicitly – out of sync with the market. This was true in Shepp’s case. Notwithstanding Kwanza, a collection of passed-over late ‘60s tracks that reached the cut-out bins in record time in 1974, The Cry of My People was his last for Impulse, which – to use an industry euphemism – was changing direction. The album became more of an artefact in the ensuing decades, remaining unissued on CD until 2004.

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