Joe McPhee: A Legend In Heavy Company

Clifford Allen By

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Forty-one years after beginning his recording career on the day after John Coltrane's funeral in sessions led by trombonist Clifford Thornton (Freedom & Unity, Third World, 1967), saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee is indeed the yeoman legend of the modern jazz-world. For many years a factory worker and sometime professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, his approach as a true heir to the spirituality of Ayler, coupled with a sense of spatial organization all his own, brought him renown on the European festival circuit. Now in addition to working in the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet and Trio X (with Dominic Duval, bass and Jay Rosen, drums), he regularly appears alongside Scandinavian power trio The Thing (Mats Gustafsson, reeds, Paal Nilssen-Love, drums and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, bass). Four recent releases make clear not only his status, but the breadth of his creativity.

Two Bands and a Legend
Two Bands and a Legend
Smalltown Superjazzz

Two Bands and a Legend is the merger of McPhee and The Thing alongside Norwegian garage-rock quartet Cato Salsa Experience. The Thing are known for their covers of songs by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and PJ Harvey sans noisy rock accompaniment, so fleshing out the ensemble is natural. Gustafsson, in addition to studying with saxophonist Bengt "Frippe" Nordstrom, also spent time in punk bands (where he played both keyboards and saxophones), and it's obviously a part of his history. Sandblasted versions of the Sonics' "The Witch" or the beat standard "Louie Louie" are de rigeur, perhaps, but each are taken for a wild, gutbucket ride (dig Gustafsson's high harmonic reading of the lyrics to "The Witch"). What might not be expected is an utterly gorgeous, spine-tingling version of Mongezi Feza's "You Ain't Gonna Know Me 'Cos You Think You Know Me," a minimalist township ballad fleshed out with plaintive guitar and wordless vocals alongside McPhee's martial pocket trumpet. Two Bands and a Legend are a might simpler than spastic, hybridized no wave combos like DNA or the Contortions—this is indeed "music that people can hum."

Trio X
AIR: Above & Beyond

Trio X, formed in 1998, was McPhee's first regularly working stateside band in over two decades, and AIR: Above & Beyond (an homage to the Henry Threadgill/Fred Hopkins/Steve McCall unit) marks its eighth recording date. The set was captured live at the Suoni Per il Popolo festival in Montreal in 2006. For those who are used to the tenor-bass-drums setup as something frequently given to full-bore blowing, Trio X eloquently captures the tension before the release —Rosen's work a nearly disappearing canvas of brushes while Duval provides subtle muscle. On "Fried Grapefruit" McPhee's breathy winnowing builds to squeals and shouts, distorted melodies played at speeds too fast to accompany in time other than that of Spiritual Unity. Duval and Rosen set up a jagged groove under McPhee's multiphonics and wide-vibrato howl — clearly, the funk of Nation Time has in no way left the building.

Joe McPhee and Dominic Duval
The Open Door

McPhee switches to alto for The Open Door, his duet set with Duval at the same festival (and their third such album-length collaboration). The bassist provides ample propulsion and melodic framework for McPhee to hang his raw, jagged tones and gruff vibrato on in an outpouring of bluesy energy rivaling the Frippe/Sven Hessle duets on Natural Music (Bird Notes, 1968). The set starts with the twenty-five minute "Escape from the Shadows," alto entering with a trepid, worried phrase after Duval's stage-setting pizzicato blanket. Of course, it doesn't take much time for the pair to intertwine plucks and yelps as McPhee scrapes away the fat in torrents of sound before a plaintive close. But the record's strongest moment might be the closing piece of the first set, "More Violets," a minute and a half extrapolation reminiscent of some of his Tenor themes, a churchy pastoral rendered quietly yet with the weight of an entire congregation.

Joe McPhee/Mikolaj Trzaska/Jay Rosen
Intimate Conversations
Not Two

Intimate Conversations finds McPhee (here solely on tenor) and Rosen in the company of Polish altoist and clarinetist Mikolaj Trzaska, whose work is most known in Europe through collaborations with the venerable Oles Brothers rhythm team (Bartlomiej, drums and Marcin, bass), as well as the groups Milosc and Loksot. He also co-runs the Kilogram Records label out of Gdansk. The set opens with Trzaska and Rosen in duo, searing high-pitched squeals and giddy skronk on top of Rosen's surge. "Maybe Not" ups the ante, the tenorist at his most possessed, glossolalia hurtling through space. In tandem, the pair is somewhat akin to the McPhee/Brotzmann quartet collaboration, notes like skree tumbling together from out of Rosen's wash. The tenor ballad "Did God Forget Darfur/What God?" carries over some of the brimstone-blues of the aforementioned quartet's "Stone Poems," with Trzaska's alto providing a degree of boppish levity in his solo spot. The title tracks are a series of duets between the saxophonists, from dervish-like legato to tart back- and-forths (including Trzaska's rare c-melody). They're broken up by Rosen's solo percussion feature, "North Star," a didactically additive piece that, while dedicated to Max Roach, sounds more akin to Andrew Cyrille's fully-formed What About? (BYG, 1969). Intimate Conversations is certainly a welcome addition to the McPhee/Rosen catalog, and clearly Trzaska is someone we can hope to hear from further on these shores. All four of these discs provide fruit for McPhee as not just a legend, but an institution.

Tracks and Personnel

Two Bands and a Legend

Tracks: Who The Fuck; The Witch; Too Much Fun; Tekla Loo; Louie Louie; You Ain't Gonna Know Me 'Cos You Think You Know Me; The Nut; Baby Talk; I Can't Find My Mind.

Personnel: Cato Salsa Experience: Cato Thomassen: guitar, vocals; Bard Enerstad: guitar, organ, theremin, vocals; Christian Engfelt: bass, vocals; Jon Magne Riise: drums. The Thing: Mats Gustafsson: tenor & baritone saxophone, electronics; Ingebrigt Haker Flaten: double bass, electronics; Paal Nilssen-Love: drums. Joe McPhee: tenor saxophone, pocket trumpet, vocals.

AIR: Above & Beyond

Tracks: Fried Grapefruit; Jump Spring; 2128 1/2 Indiana; Close Up; Give Us This Day; Here's That Rainy Day; A Valentine in the Fog of War.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor saxophone; Dominic Duval: bass; Jay Rosen: drums.

The Open Door

Tracks: Escape from the Shadows; Freedom to Choose; More Violets; The Open Door; Rainbow Crossing; A Poetic Resonance; Variations on God Bless the Child.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: alto saxophone; Dominic Duval: bass.

Intimate Conversations

Tracks: Was It Something I Said?; Maybe Not; I Would If I Could; Did God Forget Darfur/What God?; An Intimate Conversation #1; An Intimate Conversation #2; North Star (for Max Roach); An Intimate Conversation #3; Dom's Matrix; Snowflakes On Flowers; And Then; King to King's Bishop 3.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor sax; Mikolaj Trzaska: bass clarinet, alto sax, C-melody sax; Jay Rosen: drums.


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