My Favorite Album: Jana Hunter of Lower Dens on Archie Shepp’s "Attica Blues" | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, February 21st, 2024  

My Favorite Album: Jana Hunter of Lower Dens on Archie Shepp’s “Attica Blues”

“We need musically rich protest albums right now, even though it’s hard to write those right now.”

Aug 20, 2020 Photography by Torso. Lower Dens
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Since 1960, 82-year-old jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp has played saxophone and piano on at least 100 different releases, almost all as leader or co-leader. Shepp has shared blasts with John Coltrane, Max Roach, and Frank Zappa, but one of his better-regarded albums is 1972’s politically inspired Attica Blues.

As the party of the opening title track dies down, civil rights activist and lawyer, William Kunstler, is present in pensive tone for 18 seconds. Kunstler defended Attica Prison rioters after the brutal Attica Prison rebellion of 1971, which left 43 people dead and countless others gassed by toxic fumes. Kunstler says something of true meaning: “if it ain’t natural, it ain’t real.”

Attica Blues is in protest of the Attica Prison uprising. It’s a big album featuring many guests, swinging back and forth—not unlike the helicopters New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had over Attica in 1971.

“It’s really hard to pick [one favorite album] and it shifts over time, but Attica Blues came back to me,” says Jana Hunter, the main creative force of Lower Dens. “It’s very passionate, prohibitive, and honest. We need musically rich protest albums right now, even though it’s hard to write those right now. We have the life experience, but it is a risk to release unfiltered work.”

Hunter focuses on “Quiet Dawn,” the closing song written by composer and trumpeter Calvin Massey, who died of a heart attack the same year Attica Blues was released. Massey’s young daughter, Waheeda, sings on the track. “I love the realness of her voice—there’s something very joyful,” says Hunter. “It’s an outlier from the rest of the album, a whimsical, delicate thing.”

Hunter thinks that Attica Blues carries a type of whimsical absurdity because there’s a sense of humor within Shepp’s music despite the material coming from a serious, heart-wrenching situation. Hunter points to the run of “Steam, Part 1,” “Invocation to Mr. Parker” (its title referring to saxophonist Charlie Parker, who helped create the bebop jazz style), and “Steam, Part 2” as an example. “He’s an artist expressing confrontation and somberness through joy,” says Hunter. “Attica Blues has so much emotional and musical range…it makes me feel whole and alive.”

Specifically, Hunter can’t recall the first time hearing Attica Blues, but says it was within the last few years. Hunter had been listening to Charles Mingus’ 1963 album, Mingus Plays Piano, a lot, and that avenue led to Archie Shepp. “He jumped out to me because the music stacks chords and progressions,” Hunter says of Shepp. “It’s beautiful and dense, or chaotic. His musical breath is really inspiring, using musical humor in writing to add dimensionality to subjects—it’s more easy to digest.”

We circle back to Kunstler’s “if it ain’t natural, it ain’t real” quote on Attics Blues. We talk about how some musicians have a passion for making music that is ingrained in them; creativity comes out of them, naturally. To Hunter, Shepp’s music sounds natural and effortless; it is flowing out of him. “Subjectively, I tend to put musicians into categories,” says Hunter. “Being a musician is hard on the mind and body, and I’m interested in knowing the motivations of musicians, how and why they make music.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]

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