Joe McPhee and Friends: Directed Improvisation at RUCMA, New York City
Out of the darkness, McPhee appeared with flugelhorn, moving to the center of the performance area in front of the audience and using the instrument as a drone, allowing the monotone to highlight both Lavelle's sound on bass clarinet and the strong, confident bowing of Dominic Duval. The viola and violin came close to a flickering effect with their rapid bowing. Hwang changed to scraping his viola strings and Hertlein carved out a tune, the bows of the remaining string players meanwhile moving incessantly. The horns by this time were shrieking: the pace had become furious and the dynamics uproarious over the span of the improv. Sensing that the piece had reached its peak and could go no further, McPhee directed the close. Everyone stopped playing.
With this opening piece, the way in which the music developed over a period of about two hours was clear as a bell. McPhee acted as the primary listener. What he heard in the music in turn inspired him to encourage crescendos, to stop one instrument from playing while starting another, to brake the sound with his hands or, by wiggling his fingers, to incite quickness of gestural motion from certain instrumentalists. The attention to all categories of music productiontone selection, volume, tempo and choice of techniquenever wavered. Even as he played an instrument, he both integrated himself with the sound as well as led it.
The pieces in the remainder of the session demonstrated equal attentiveness to balance, intensity, melody, and trust. These qualities, moreover, hinged as much on the group's interpretation of McPhee's transmission of his ideas as on McPhee's own concept of how the music should flow. The group members watched his every move. Yet, and most importantly, each musician in the ensemble revealed his or her own capacity for attentiveness, awareness and invention, without which the music would have only flirted with success.
McPhee exhibited as much about his acute awareness of sound when not playing his own instrument as he demonstrated commanding skills when he actually played. It was stirring to watch him clap out a tempo when drummer Andrew Barker had taken his center place in the group. And it was a powerful moment when McPhee bared his teeth and pretended to scrape and tear at his left arm with his right-hand fingers in order to pull the severity of that "sound image" out of the strings. It was emotionally gripping to watch him as he played the flugelhorn and leaned into the strings of Duval's bass, bowing a sympathetic response to McPhee's musical line. It was a very human moment when, just before the last piece began, McPhee asked: Who wants to start? And a voice from the other side of the room spoke out: How about a McPhee solo?
McPhee did in fact solo on soprano for a few minutes, gradually squeezing the notes out of an initial breathing through the horn. A two-note ostinato arose, which Campbell captured synchronistically on his muted trumpet. The horn and string sounds accumulated and blended with an implicit rhythm. Duval's bow stroked the final notes of this brief piece on his bass strings. And the music was done.
The music was done. McPhee had imparted a little-known aspect of his vision. It was as if he had physically made a painting of multiple layers, applying the broadest strokes with his brush first and, on top of that foundation, carefully choosing where to project and adjust each detail and new color. And now, after the experience of watching McPhee guide numerous elements to their natural order, only an aural memory remains.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: soprano sax, flugelhorn; Roy Campbell: trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, flute; Matt Lavelle: bass clarinet; Lewis Barnes: trumpet; Ras Moshe: tenor sax; Rosi Hertlein: violin; Jason Kao Hwang: viola; Emmanuel Cremer: cello; Mossa Bildner: vocals; Dominic Duval, Lisle Ellis, Kevin Ray: bass; Clifton Hyde: electric and steel guitar; Andrew Barker: drums.
Photo credit Lyn Horton