Joe McPhee fans tend to be a loyal and devoted bunch. But one of the most frustrating things about digging McPhee’s music is the fact that much of it, especially the early stuff is out of print. His early albums have for far too long languished only in the hands of collectors and on the shelves of libraries and fortunate radio stations. John Corbett’s Unheard imprint is about to change all that with ambitious plans to return four of the maestro’s most prized albums originally recorded for the long defunct CjR label back into circulation. As the first of these Nation Time presents half of a concert McPhee recorded at the Urban Center for Black Studies at Vassar College. Though the disc’s sound suffers from both the quality and age of the source recording McPhee’s music easily outdistances these problems and it’s up to the listener to sit back, soak in the music and imagine the galvanizing spectacle that the show must have been.
At the start of the title track, a piece that consumes nearly twenty minutes, McPhee, shouts an invocational query to the audience- “What Time Is It?” Successive responses from the crowd gather force and volume until the quintet finally launches off the crest of brisk four note thematic figure powered by the all encompassing wave of Kull’s electric keys. McPhee eventually enters on hoary tenor blowing beautiful melodic runs against Kull’s boisterous comping and the twin percussive juggernaut of Thompson and Bostic. Six minutes in the rest of the group drops out and McPhee takes a brief stint alone. He delves deeply into the innards of his horn and pulls forth an intense blues-inflected improvisation like the proverbial rabbit out of the hat before his partners’ abrupt return. The remaining half of the piece is a flurry of activity punctuated by vocal interjections from the band members and another solo spot by McPhee that changes the motif to another repetitious, but highly grooving rhythmic pattern.
“Shakey Jake” adds a few players and places amiable focus on a boogaloo groove grounded in B-3 organ, finger-popping guitar and an percussive break beat backdrop. McPhee and Greene shape ricocheting riff-based improvisations on the basic Soul-powered theme while the rhythm section lays down thick funky syrup for everyone to slide on. Overall, it’s a fairly loose jam with a few spots of tremulous interplay when the horns drop out, but McPhee and Greene never lose their sense of direction and always keep things percolating at a engaging pace. In other words- this is some supremely funky shit.
For “Scorpio’s Dance” McPhee hoists up his brass and blows a romantic introduction before moving back to blustery tenor. The Bostic/Thompson team is a little overwhelming on this one and their percussion picks up a little distortion from their combined volume. Kull manages to keep things in check with some strenuous comping, but the tune closes out on a surprisingly plaintive note. Fans of McPhee are likely to flock to this release, but others with less of a familiarity with his sound should add it to their listening lists too. Added bells and whistles include a reproduction of the LP’s back cover and a modest collection of 70s era photos with McPhee decked out in full-on soul brother regalia.
Tracks:Nation Time/ Shakey Jake*/ Scorpio’s Dance.
Players:Joe McPhee- tenor saxophone & trumpet; Mike Kull- piano & electric piano; Tyrone Crabb- bass, electric bass & trumpet; Bruce Thompson- percussion; Ernest Bostic- percussion; Otis Greene- alto saxophone*; Herbie Lehman- organ*; Dave Jones- electric guitar*.
Recorded: December 12 & 13, 1970,
Unheard releases are available directly through Atavistic: http://www.atavistic.com