Jazz and Blues are recognized widely as uniquely American art forms. At the root of both genres resides the African American spiritual song-form. Spirituals predate both Blues and Jazz and continue to be a life-sustaining force for both musical traditions. McPhee and his partners in Bluette fathom the primacy of this bloodline and use this date as a celebratory tribute to these sources. In addition to the handful of spirituals in the program the quartet also touches upon the work of other composers whose work has been shaped by these religious founts of inspiration. Their reading of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” a song that served and still serves as an anthem for social and political equality is tear-inducing in its noble beauty. The delicate creativity brought to bear on the composition takes the kernels of thought inherent in the piece and expands them exponentially. Giardullo’s silvery flute and McPhee’s canorous soprano weave a eulogy for fallen heroes, while still stretching a hopeful gaze to the future under the undulating bass currents of Bisio and Duval. Hearing this piece makes me hope that Mayfield was mailed a copy and had a chance to hear it before his passing.
Ellington’s “Come Sunday” is paired with McPhee’s own “Birmingham Sunday” in a similar salute. The piece opens in a dirge-like dance between soprano and bass clarinet. When the twining basses eventually enter the horn lines become increasingly dense rising and falling underneath a downpour of pizzicato notes. Somber tones saturate later sections before a final ecstatic reconciliation of the themes. Of the spirituals the opening rendition of “Deep River” is the most openly imbued with solemn pathos, though all tug strongly at the emotions. On this piece and on “God Bless the Child” McPhee is at his most nakedly lyric and his euphonic lines uncover every ounce of dignity in the timeworn, but no less lustrous melodies. This is, simply put, some of the most straightforward playing he’s ever put to record.
McPhee’s own “Astral Spirits” references the reedplayer on his regular terrain of intricately bent tones, multiphonics and lighting fast fingerings sans Giardullo. The barrage from the bell of his horn becomes so intense that the bassists are moved to follow suit with staccato string slaps. Bass accents also wreathe the opening on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” where a swell of bowed dissonance prefaces the later interplay by the horns. McPhee on tenor and Giardullo on fluttering bass clarinet arrive in a deservedly righteous procession of bluesy phrasings and take the piece and the disc regrettable close. In a career stamped by a continuous string of transcendent recordings this is one of McPhee’s best to date, a vital testament that lovingly embraces the indelible tradition of spirituals and expertly applies them to the setting of creative improvisation.
Tracks:Deep River/ People Get Ready/ God Bless the Child/ Birmingham Sunday/ Come Sunday/ Astral Spirits/ Just A Closer Walk With Thee.
Personnel: Joe McPhee- soprano & tenor saxophones; Joe Giardullo- flute, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone; Michael Bisio- bass; Dominic Duval- bass.
Recorded: March 17 & 18, 1999.