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Joe McPhee: A Band Apart


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You might expect a musician who has been a steady figure on the creative improvising scene for nearly 45 years to have some variance in their discography and a diverse range of projects and band concepts. Reedman (and sometime pocket trumpeter) Joe McPhee's vast number of recordings and ensembles speak to that impulse, but the curious thing is that there doesn't seem to be a preferred instrumental context for his playing—not really.

McPhee's cultish free-funk sides of the early 1970s included electric piano, dual drummers and another saxophonist but eschewed the bass, and his take on the "power trio" at that time often employed tenor, drums and piano or synthesizer. Later groups like his Po Music quartet combined McPhee with a second saxophonist, guitar and bass. Even Trio X, which joins him with bassist Dominic Duval and percussionist Jay Rosen, doesn't act like a full-bore tenor and rhythm group, rather stretching into spacious open improvisations that grant Spiritual Unity with introspective and raw parallelism.

Three recent recordings capture the multi-instrumentalist and improvising composer in three very diverse settings, all of which speak to his soloistic power and broad group concept.

Ingebrigt Haker Flaten/Joe McPhee

Blue Chicago Blues

Not Two


Diversity aside, Blue Chicago Blues does catch McPhee in what appears to be a favorite format—the saxophone and bass duo. He's recorded in like configurations with Duval and even an expanded bass quartet, but this is his first such collaboration with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (whom he's worked with in The Thing and Two Bands & A Legend). Recorded in 2007 in Chicago and released on Poland's Not Two label, the set consists of six moderate-length duos that were fodder for a forthcoming follow up and recent tour.

With Blue Chicago Blues dedicated to Fred Anderson, the blues and the Chicago sound are naturally given a tenor predilection. The opening "Truth in the Abstract Blues" pits rattled flamenco-like strums against choppy simplicity, McPhee's descending cells velvety and tense, even when stretched out into husky, linear near-shouts. There are echoes of the hoarse, steely resonance present in Tenor (Hat Hut, 1976) and its blues-based solo impasto, unfettered youthful energy with a healthy dose of wise-beyond-one's-years whittling.

Perhaps it's the influence of Flaten, who sails along a la both Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray, his hums and vocal whines underpinning an isolationist thrum on "Cerulean Mood Swing." If McPhee is Ayler-esque at all, it's in an incredibly stretched- out manner, cueing the sparse side of the late saxophonist's spiritual wander. The tenor man is harried and punchy on "I Love You Too Little Baby," with purrs, guffaws and insectile patterns traced around the bassist's sharp curlicues. "The Shape of Blues to Come" is a whorl of high-pitched arco fiddling and temperature-raising circular breath. Like many good-to-excellent duets, the implication is of more musicians than the two present, or that the improvisations are greater than the sum of their parts. That's certainly true here, for Blue Chicago Blues is too finely orchestrated to be a mere sparring contest.

Survival Unit III


Harmonic Convergence


Back in 1970, the Survival Unit was McPhee's taped sound-field accompaniment on otherwise solo performances. Its second iteration kept the pre-recorded sounds, but added musicians like pianist Mike Kull, drummer Harold E. Smith, saxophonist Byron Morris and brass multi-instrumentalist Clifford Thornton (as represented by N.Y. N.Y. 1971 on Hat Hut). The SU-III is a trio and generally leaves the electronics up to cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, rounded out by percussionist Michael Zerang. All three musicians are also members of the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. Issued on the small Harmonic Convergence label, Synchronicity is the SU-III's first full disc (some of its work was released in 2010 as part of the Chicago Tentet's Three Nights in Oslo box on Smalltown Superjazzz) and features four group improvisations.

The lengthy "Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop" finds McPhee intermingling his alto wail with Lonberg-Holm's lacquered glissandi and grainy chunks, buoyed by stuttering time. A few flatted remarks later and the trio has entered a more spacious realm that is no less high-octane, subtonal scrapes and metal-against-membrane a raucous commentary on McPhee's sweetly keening alto. Metronomic toms offer close-knit support for multiphonics and droning sinews in one of the piece's most compelling sections, Zerang expounding on Middle Eastern and martial statements in an unaccompanied spot that stands in robust relief against the trio's down-and-dirty energy. Selected and unselected cymbal clatter flash throughout much of "The Why Knot" as the trio imbibes in glitchy, skronking motion. Scraped metal, ponticello bowing and seasick knob-twisting make up the canvas of "Hmmm (for Maryanne Amacher)," as McPhee's alto organically snakes through the proceedings.

The contrast between electro-acoustic noise and the steeped traditionalism of McPhee's arsenal makes for a fascinating approach—that said, Zerang and Lonberg-Holm have a knack for imparting personality to even the most abstract sound construction.

Ircha Clarinet Quintet

Lark Uprising



Polish reedman Mikolaj Trzaska has drawn an American connection for many years, working with figures like trumpeter Lester Bowie and in reedman Ken Vandermark's multi-national Resonance ensemble. He recorded a particularly strong trio date with McPhee and Trio X drummer Jay Rosen called Intimate Conversations for Not Two in 2007. Lark Uprising, from the Ircha Clarinet Quintet, brings them together again, along with Waclaw Zimpel, Pawel Szamburski and Michal Gorczynski, for five group compositions. Though not particularly known as a clarinetist, the alto clarinet has been part of McPhee's arsenal for years and cropped up in particularly fine form on the solo LP Alto (Roaratorio, 2009). Lark Uprising, though, is an undertaking that McPhee is only one part of—a brilliant collective vision summoned from five individuals.

While all of the players here are extremely well-respected improvisers in Europe and elsewhere, it would be a stretch to call Ircha a vehicle for soloists in the traditional, jazz-based sense. The music is far more textural in its import, as the finely orchestrated opener, "Ant-Hill Builder," testifies in somber, dusky tones that join in tight dissonance and Bill Dixon-like sway. Deep and burnished bass clarinet unfurls in popped accents, granting a jovial bounce to reverent grays and browns before merging into polyphonic varied moods. Zimpel's taragato is anthemic and wistful duetting with harsher bass clarinet warble, and the contrast in character is striking.

The pieces segue as a suite from "City Shepherds" onward, clattering pads dawning in a multiplicity of purred breath and ebbing, choppy beats. "Sleeping Deep in the Moss" is a filmic vignette, sparse, high and lonesome and calling to mind the wail of an English folksong, from which a collective banshee cry arises in the closing minute. A loping head-bob characterizes "Swampquake," becoming ever more fractured until the quintet splays out into a landscape of high and low harmonics.

Lark Uprising is a beautiful record and a unique one—though it centers on the reed family, Ircha is far more textural and ceases to be a mere "reed quintet" rather quickly. In this regard, the music is akin to the best work of Rova or the World Saxophone Quartet crossed with the textures of Alban Berg or Gyorgy Ligeti, but for all intents and purposes the music is decidedly their own.

Tracks and Personnel

Blue Chicago Blues

Tracks: Truth in the Abstract Blues; Cerulean Mood Swing; Requiem for an Empty Heart; I Love You Too Little Baby; The Shape of Blues To Come; Legend of the Three Blind Moose.

Personnel: Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, bass; Joe McPhee, tenor saxophone.


Tracks: Waiting for the Other Shoe to Fall; The Why Not; Hmmm (for Maryanne Amacher); Hndrx 9-18-70.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: alto saxophone and alto clarinet; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello and electronics; Michael Zerang: percussion.

Lark Uprising

Tracks: Ant-Hill Builder; City Shepherds; Sleeping deep in the Moss; Swampquake; Sparrows in Pentagon.

Personnel: Mikolaj Trzaska: alto and bass clarinet; Joe McPhee: alto clarinet; Michal Gorczynski: bass clarinet; Pawel Szamburski: clarinet and bass clarinet; Waclaw Zimpel: clarinet, bass clarinet and tarogato.


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