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Joe McPhee/John Butcher: At The Hill Of James Magee

Mark Corroto By

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The music of saxophonists Joe McPhee and John Butcher has habitually been centered on place. By that I mean environment, the situation and setting for sound creation. We can go all the way back to McPhee's Tenor (Hat Hut, 1977), his ghostly recording laid down in a farmhouse in Adlemsried, Switzerland, or, more recently, the astonishing Sonic Elements (Clean Feed, 2012) solo concert at the Ljubljana Jazz Festival. Both recordings embrace and are affected by their environs. This concern with place is even more prominent in Butcher's music. Whether he is recording in caves, caverns, cisterns, chapels, or concert halls, his sound is reliant, dare we say, dependent on the space he occupies. Fine examples of this relationship with specific spaces include Resonant Spaces (Confront, 2008) and The Contest Of Pleasures (Potlatch, 2001).

That said, it's funny that these two have never recorded together until this magical project in the West Texas desert. The background story of James Magee's pavilions and sculptural creation, the site of this performance, located 80 miles from the nearest town, is worth investigating. But since we listeners didn't drive through the desert, then trek a few miles on foot to the space, we are left only with sound as evidence of the experience. Certainly this auditory document differs from the heat, dirt, and cactus-filled tactile encounter of the audience, but maybe leaving that to our imaginations is its own reward.

The recording is made up of two duets and four solo performances. The opening track "Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No" is the signature piece of the concert with each saxophonist occupying a separate channel, McPhee performing in the north building on Magee Hill (left Channel) and Butcher from the south building (right channel). Each performer eventually walks toward and passes the other, creating for our ears (headphones best) a distinct spatial sense. Each player's notes, tones, overtones, and breath are supplemented by the architecture. The four solo pieces are advanced clinics in saxophone technique, again supplemented by architecture and wind and weather. Each performer invited the desert into their sound, giving the listener the feel of sand between our toes and the visual of sage brush rolling by.

Track Listing: Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No; Mine Shaft; Paradise Overcast; A Forty Foot Square Room; Torcello; St. Ida’s Breath (Less Her Head And Teeth).

Personnel: Joe McPhee: alto saxophone; John Butcher: tenor saxophone.

Title: At The Hill Of James Magee | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Trost Records

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