Matthew Shipp & the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet in Antwerp
Smith's dancing mallets opened their set, before Campbell smeared breathy squeals on flugelhorn in a sparse duet. Gradually Parker added scrabbling bass runs, with McPhee finally moving forward from the rear of the stage to contribute powerful free-form tenor saxophone, in an open four-way improvisation which imperceptibly blended into "Our Prayer" (written by Ayler's brother Donald). McPhee raised his horn to cue a unison line with Campbell, over Parker's elegiac arco drone, deploying a broad vibrato, while swaying from side to side as he referenced Ayler's legacy with falsetto asides. Campbell, now on trumpet, tailgated him, cutting up rough with holy roller cries, before they returned to the aching theme.
As they eased down, Smith began a solo with larger mallets, acting as the transition into a further passage of group interaction. Improvisations and themes meshed organically, with one particular highlight being a soaring, painfully beautiful version of "Ol' Man River," tenderly and reverentially stated over clattering drums and arco bass, which formed the launch pad for an eruption of molten squawking from McPhee's vocalized tenor, in loose counterpoint with Campbell's growling and spluttering flugelhorn.
Making possible the conversational sparring of the horns was a flexible and dynamic rhythm section where Smith brought a wonderful compositional sensibility to the placement of sound, both in ensembles and solos. In his quest for the right texture he left his drum stool to circle his kit, all the while playing the stand, the rims and any other surface which appealed, before a prolonged tattoo on the cushion of his stool heralded the resumption of a more conventional position. Parker was in similarly adventurous mode this evening, giving full rein to his wonderful arco playing, with one tour de force of rhythmic sawing morphing into a pizzicato riff to ignite the ensemble once more.
Instruments, textures and dynamics shifted constantly through the unbroken 50-minute-long first piece. After group introductions by Campbell, resplendent in a blue shirt with bright yellow Egyptian figures, McPhee consulted with Parker, who led off with a rich, warmly measured introduction which metamorphosed into a beautiful reading of "Goin' Home," a hymn based on the theme from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 and a longtime favorite of McPhee's, who invests these spirituals with a profound emotional heft. As the horns loosened up with intertwining squeals, Campbell interjected "Ghosts" and a medley of other Ayler themes for a spirited conclusion.
The spellbound audience responded with a standing ovation, which demanded an encorea fizzing trumpet duel amid a blizzard of notesfor a splendid conclusion to a deeply fulfilling evening which reaffirmed the golden thread between this music and its antecedents.