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Joe McPhee: Angels, Devils & Haints

Lyn Horton By

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In 1965, Joe McPhee met Donald Ayler by chance in a New York record store. Ayler asked McPhee to join him at a rehearsal where Albert Ayler would be, but unfortunately McPhee was unable to make the rehearsal. That missed opportunity triggered a powerful response in May 2000, when McPhee invited a group of musicians to join him for two concerts in France, entitling them The Albert Ayler Project 2000. Angels, Devils & Haints, a two-volume recording, is the result of the concerts performed in Le Mans and Nantes. Reed and brass player McPhee works together with four bassists, Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Claude Tchamitian and Paul Rogers.

The boldness of McPhee's choice to combine saxophones and pocket trumpet with four basses resembles that of one vocalist sharing the stage with an entire orchestra. The first volume attests to the expansiveness of the instrumentation; this side has two pieces, including the fifty-six minute title cut. Each bass plays continually and concurrently. Juxtaposed with the densely interconnected web of bowed intervals, pizzicato phases, and percussiveness are the tonalities of McPhee's tenor, alto and pocket trumpet. The timbres of the horns embody their kinship to the human voice: how it moans, wails or salutes, shows longing, irritation, frustration, strength, weakness, fatigue, fragility, softness or lovingness and speaks with both a feminine and masculine tendency.

McPhee delivers every note with commitment and determination. With incomparable fortitude, the basses behave as a group, embracing McPhee in his aloneness to bolster his strengths, to shape his motifs, to elevate his sense of the music that he, himself, makes. "Angels, Devils And Haints" portrays the vastness of the mysterious Sisyphean journey of living. In a way that only McPhee can crystallize its message, the traditional spiritual, "Goin' Home," concludes the journey, in a heavenly eternity, where forever will be music and its makers.

Volume two addresses—with no less sanctity—other aspects of the "journey" concept through McPhee's gripping, unforgettable solo interpretation of Kern & Hammerstein's "Old Man River." The basses in this performance seem to separate a bit then blatantly conglomerate, while McPhee discovers extraordinary range with the alto, flexing his mastery of vibrato and split tones into distinctive formations. With the trumpet, he hails repetitive figures and steals wah-wahs that dissolve to air, while with the tenor, he taps profound emotion melodically and unreservedly ("Angels And Other Aliens").

Throughout the music, McPhee steps out occasionally to let the basses define their characters, individually or as four personalities within one instrumental boundary. Sometimes the basses become more resonantly talkative than the horn McPhee plays sporadically ("The Gift"). But their five-way conversation never abates, equally through improvisation or tunefulness.

More than a tribute to the Ayler brothers, this recording expresses deep gratitude to Albert, without whose impact, twenty-eight year old trumpeter Joe McPhee might never have picked up the saxophone, much less carved out his own stunning and irrevocable influence on improvised music.

Angels, Devils & Haints lives, unsurpassed.


Track Listing: Angels, Devils and Haints; Goin' Home; Ol' Man River; Angels and Other Aliens; The Gift.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor and alto saxophones, pocket trumpet; Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Claude Tchamitian, Paul Rogers: basses.

Title: Angels, Devils & Haints | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: CJR


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