Joe McPhee: Survival Unit II with Clifford Thornton, N.Y. N.Y. 1971 (2006)
Without quesion, Joe McPhee is an American national treasure, and this recording offers proof that the idiosyncratic free jazz icon been one for over thirty years now. This disc documents a radio broadcast from at a time when the US was undergoing political and cultural upheavals, and the music is both reflective of such a time and the product of a proudly singular musical intelligence. The three announcements which were part of the original recording amount to just 1:43 out of a total playing time of almost 79 minutes.
The absence of a bass lends this quintet music a light and airy feel, even at its most heated moments, as on the lengthy "Nation Time," where McPhee proves he was able to blow up a storm with the best of the tenor players, and Byron Morris proves himself a worthy musician on soprano, though he has sadly escaped the attentions of posterity. Baritone horn player Clifford Thornton brings his own weirdly stately but deeply satisfying approach to bear here as well.
"Song For Lauren" is an example of a sort of lyricism that has arguably been downgraded in McPhee's music in more recent times, but it reveals what a multifaceted composer and musician he can be. This is just as it should be with any national treasure.
Pianist Mike Kull's work is, in its way, just as fascinating as that of any of the musicians here. His distance from Cecil Taylor's rolling thunder is as pronounced as his distance from, say, the insistent minimalism of the mature Mal Waldron. He also manages to avoid every hackneyed phrase in the book. One can't help but wonder what has become of Kull over the decades.
The sound restoration that has effectively brought this music back to life is exemplary enough to satisfy everyone except the most finicky of audiophiles. Besides, its shortcomings lend the music a certain urgency that wouldn't have been preserved in a pristine studio environment. As for the rest of us, this is a great opportunity to check in with McPhee on street level and follow his musical journey chronologically from there. Live a little and savour the challenge.
Track Listing: Announcement 1; Black Magic Man; Announcement 2; Nation Time; Song For Lauren; Announcement 3; Message From Denmark; The Looking Glass I; Harriet.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor saxophone, trumpet; Byron Morris: alto and soprano saxophones; Clifford Thornton: baritone horn; Mike Kull: piano; Harold E. Smith: drums.