The older you grow, the more conservative you get and the safer the parameters you set yourself; or so conventional wisdom has it. Now within a whisker of his 70th birthday, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee doesn't so much defy the cliche as explode it; still stretching his music, still protesting against injustice. Sweet Freedom - Now What?
, recorded in 1994 and here re-released with an addendum by McPhee to his original liner essay, is part of a continuum that stretches back to his first appearances on record almost forty years agoas a sideman on trombonist/trumpeter Clifford Thornton's Freedom And Unity
(Third World, 1969), and as leader on Underground Railroad
(Atavistic, 1969)and which has maintained its direction up to and beyond Let Paul Robeson Sing
As the album titles suggest, the primary focus of McPhee's political awareness is the raw deal African Americans have continued to receive since the false dawn of desegregation in the 1960s. McPhee's concerns parallel those of drummer Max Roach, whose death in 2007 prompted this reissue. Sweet Freedom - Now What?
references Roach's masterpieces We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
(Candid, 1960) and Percussion Bitter Sweet
(Impulse!, 1961), and most of its tunes were either composed by Roach or have become associated with him. Two are taken from We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
, including that album's nightmarish opener, "Driva' Man."
Performed without a drummersome might say curiously, others appropriatelyand with McPhee eschewing trumpet and trombone to play reeds alone, Sweet Freedom - Now What?
offers an attractively lyrical take on its source material without compromising its fundamental sense of injustice. Roach's "Mendacity" and "Garvey's Ghost," both arranged by pianist Paul Plimley, and "Self Portrait," arranged by McPhee, are imbued not with a mellowness brought on by advancing age but by a soulful resilience brought on by the certainty of eventual victory. At other timesas on "Driva' Man," arranged by bassist Lisle Ellis, or on the second and third sections of "Triptych," arranged by PlimleyMcphee's splintered, raucous tenor saxophone taps into the righteous anger shaping his and Roach's politics.
This was magnificent music in 1960, when Roach released We Insist! Freedom Now Suite
, in 1994, when McPhee recorded Sweet Freedom - Now What?
, and it is still magnificent today, in 2008, spun with a beauty that only experience can bring.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor and soprano saxophone, alto clarinet; Lisle Ellis: double-bass; Paul Plimley: piano.