The themes of cultural and spiritual emancipation as reflected through the African American experience have served as the bread and butter for the music of Joe McPhee’s Bluette since the ensemble’s origins. It seems only natural then that the group would chose to honor a figure who stands as exemplary of these too often curtailed ideals. Paul Robeson’s life story and work are rich in the principles that drive the quartet and his passion and dignity bleed directly into the dedicatory music.
Composed in suite-like fashion, but committed to tape in piecemeal order the program traces an oblique trail through key incidents in Robeson’s personal history. The opening “RENAISSANCE” unfolds in a wash of spiritual pathos as fragments both hauntingly familiar and freshly minted. Thanks to the usual CIMP engineering latitudes (which can seem like strictures depending on listener tastes) Duval and Bisio suffer in the quieter sections as in the opening minutes where their twining lines skirt the edges of audibility. McPhee and Giardullo are easily discernable thanks both to the clean delineation of their chosen instruments and the ability of their reeds, winds and brass to project with clarion certainty through the naked sonic space. The middle episodes sacrifice linear clarity for an abstracted intricacy that is at times patience taxing, but placed in the context of the whole their purpose makes perfect sense. In a sense they reflect Robeson’s own ideological imperative of following one’s own muse and convictions whatever the cost to reputation and risk to self.
Throughout these sections the four players calibrate for increased freedom and dissonance in the interplay. On “PEEKSKILL” they trace a volatile musical interpretation of a violent incident instigated by agitators in response to Robeson’s call for African Americans to abstain from military service. Tandem bowed basses stir an ominous undercurrent over which clicking breath sounds scurry and chatter. The mood soon turns more blatantly hostile as the acerbic horns spew multiphonic invectives and the strings answer with harmonic vitriol of their own. A mocking round-robin march closes “September 4th,” seemingly echoing the small-minded bigotry that Robeson met that day. McPhee’s contrasting solo tenor coda “EPITAPH” carves a fitting capstone for the date, etching an improvisation that is at turns tender and hopeful.
A secondary, but no less indelible influence is highlighted in McPhee’s elucidative liners- that of the infamy and tragedy inherent in the events of September 11th. Six days after this session was taped the group, with Tani Tabbal in Duval’s stead, found themselves again in a studio, reeling from the day’s destruction and sadness. This earlier recording stands a prescient precursor traveling many of the same roads of loss and redemption in the face of overwhelming odds and grief. McPhee communicates in no uncertain terms that he does not consider this music jazz; it is instead a “tribute to an American Hero” and “ remembrances of a man, a human being with all of the strengths and weaknesses of all humans.” Whatever it’s pedigree the strength of the music and its ability to spur the emotions speaks for itself.
CIMP discs are distributed directly through North Country Distributors reachable on the web at: http://www.cadencebuilding.com
Personnel: Joe McPhee- tenor saxophone, flugelhorn, alto clarinet; Joe Giardullo- flute, bass clarinet; Michael Bisio- bass; Dominic Duval- bass. Recorded: September 4 & 5, 2001, Rossie, NY.