Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee's first recordingas a sideman on Clifford Thornton's Freedom And Unity. Since then, he has recorded over 60 albums as a leader, had two labels formed with the express intention of releasing his music (CJR and hatHUT), added several instruments to his arsenal and influenced/inspired a great many of the younger generation of avant-garde players. These four recent releases show McPhee steadfast in his uncompromising approach to music and willing to collaborate with those equally so.
Remembrance is on the reactivated CJR label, the label that issued the first four releases under McPhee's name. Recorded at the 2001 Earshot Festival in Seattle this set puts McPhee in a trio with two long-time collaborators: French guitarist Raymond Boni and Seattle (now New York) bassist Michael Bisio. Despite the fact that Bisio and Boni have rarely played together, they have a simpatico relationship. McPhee sticks mostly to soprano with some pocket trumpet. There are some balance problems with Bisio at times buried in the mix, odd for such a strong player.
This title track, in two parts, starting with the faintest of sounds emanating from Bisio's bowed bass, is a 40-minute free improv that wends its way through many peaks and valleys. Separating the two parts of "Remembrance are two tracks. One is a poem written and read by Seattle-based poet Paul R. Harding. The poem is rife with jazz imagery accompanied by sparks from Boni's guitar. The other is an arco tour-de-force solo by Bisio. When "Remembrance (Closing) begins, McPhee is on trumpet blowing high arcing phrases. He soon picks up his soprano and starts pecking out "Blue Monk . A very intense version ensues taking the performance to its seeming conclusion. But there's a five minute coda of acappella saxophone that starts quietly and gets progressively quieter until the last few wispy notes drift into the ether. It's a remarkable ending to a remarkable performance.
McPhee and Boni have a history that goes back to the 1979 release Old Eyes. They've renewed their musical partnership over the years, most memorably with the 2001 duo Voices And Dreams, one of the finest releases in McPhee's discography. Their most recent renewal comes on Next To You, recorded with bassist Claude Tchamitchian and saxophonist Daunik Lazro, another frequent partner of McPhee's.
The program is a set of nine free improvisations, no song allusions, no chord changes, just pure freedom. McPhee is heard here on soprano and alto saxophones and pocket trumpet. Lazro plays alto and baritone saxophones. They work well together and contrast nicely but McPhee seems to concentrate on his trumpet work more on this disc. Boni's unique take on gypsy guitar techniques mixed with mutating electronic effects reaches its apex on an unaccompanied interlude and duo with Tchamitchian on "One More Step . There's some remarkable electronic sounding improvisation on "Softitude with Boni doing feedback and Tchamitchian, Lazro and McPhee (on trumpet) playing harmonics. This is a well-assembled group of musicians, all working towards one goal, creating a true group music.
On the surface, In Finland's trio (McPhee, bassist Dominic Duval and pianist Matt Shipp) might give one pause for thought. While Shipp and McPhee played together previously on D.J. Spooky's Optometry (it wasn't a particularly riveting meeting), Duval had never recorded with Shipp. However, the three blend beautifully, clearly on the same wavelength. The bulk of "Never Before dwells in free improvisation before McPhee starts toying with phrases from "My Funny Valentine . The cues are picked up by Duval and Shipp and before long a stunning and lengthy dissection of the piece ensues. By the same token, on "Never Again Duval starts his bass solo with phrases from "Straight, No Chaser and Shipp and McPhee pick that up and the piece turns into a Monk medley. McPhee sticks to pocket trumpet and soprano sax on this date. Shipp's harmonically dense pianistics combined with Duval's rhythmically charged bass work provide the perfect foils for McPhee's two 'lightest' instruments. But don't confuse lightness for insubstantiality. McPhee can take a line, start it with an acrobat's litheness, then build it to remarkable intensity. This is yet another exceptional date. Hope this trio wasn't a one-shot thing.
The final release in this McPhee roundup is, in many ways, the most special. Everything Happens For A Reason is a limited edition (482 copies) vinyl piece and features an attractive print on parchment by Judith Lindbloom. But most importantly, it's McPhee's first strictly solo release since 1977's Variations On A Blue Line: Round Midnight. The recording is from a live performance from the 2003 Festival Music Unlimited in Wels, Austria and features McPhee on soprano sax, alto sax and trumpet.
The program is a mixture of the old and new. "J2 is dedicated to McPhee's father, "who literally gave me the gift of music when I was 8 years old. On this track he seems to make every sound a trumpet can make except its intended ones. The title track, performed on alto, is dedicated to Daunik Lazro. Once again, McPhee explores the extended range of the instrument, this time tempering it with snatches of melody and impassioned cries. "Come Sunday is performed on alto and Ellington's melody is a perfect vehicle for McPhee. As he rides its contours, he carefully places every note for its greatest emotional resonance. McPhee also revives a couple of his old tunes. "Vieux Carre (dedicated to Steve Lacy and Sidney Bechet) is from his 1977 solo release Graphics and this version starts like the earlier one, played slowly with a strong emphasis on the bluesy elements of the melody. But the tempo keeps accelerating and by the end it has an almost playful quality. "Voices is a McPhee standard and this is a beautiful take. The piece starts with McPhee playing a series of circular lines that seem to loop in upon themselves, gradually accruing intensity. Then he pulls the rug out from under the listener and begins to play the haunting Spanish-tinged melody, investing it with an equally intense passion. The piece dies down to a whisper, closing out one of McPhee's finest releases in fitting fashion.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Remembrance (Opening); This Is Where I Live; In The End There Is Peace; Remembrance (Closing).
Personnel: Joe McPhee: soprano saxophone, pocket trumpet; Raymond Boni: guitar; Michael Bisio: bass; Paul r. Harding: spoken voice.
Next to You
Tracks: Folie Dure; The Last Border; Next To You; Shorty; One More Step; Other Warriors; Softitude; Straight Knife; Le Regne Du Clamar Geant.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, pocket trumpet; Daunik Lazro: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Raymond Boni: guitar; Claude Tchamitchian: bass.
Tracks: Never Before; Never Again; In Finland.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: soprano saxophone, pocket trumpet; Matthew Shipp: piano; Dominic Duval: bass.
Everything Happens for a Reason
Tracks: Mythos; Vieux Carre; Come Sunday; Everything Happens For A Reason; J2; Voices.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: pocket trumpet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone.