Joe McPhee - tenor saxophone, pocket trumpet
Dominic Duval - bass
Jay Rosen - drums
March 26, 2006
A group whose repertoire is based around classics by Monk, Ornette and even Freddie Hubbard, alongside standards and gospel tunes, is not exactly pushing the envelope, right? Well not in the case of Trio X, comprising master musicians Joe McPhee, Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen. They share an affinity for well known tunes, but refined through distinctly avant-garde sensibilities. McPhee has forged unlikely but rewarding partnerships around the globe, working with everyone from Evan Parker to William Parker. Duval has been bassist of choice for Cecil Taylor for much of the last decade, while his frequent cohort Rosen has also stoked the fires of veterans such as Sonny Simmons and Charles Gayle.
Trio X, monikered after an appearance at NYC's Vision Festival which failed to register on the critical radar, have been together for over ten years, releasing seven albums on the CIMP/Cadence labels during that time. I caught them in Amsterdam on the penultimate leg of a short European tour, at the Bimhuis, perched above the waterfront, in the monolithic new Muziekgebouw.
The curtains were drawn for the afternoon performance , shutting out the sparkling sunlight reflecting off the harbour. The sombrely attired band, all in black, matched the subdued setting, but contradicted the sobriety of their appearance with an enthralling 90 minute set of eight pieces uninterrupted by spoken introductions.
The concert started with Rosen chiming hard sharp tones from the edge of his cymbals, then extracting an unhurried series of staccato timbres from his drums. Duval joined with short pizzicato runs down his fretboard, as the two united in flurries of overlapping rhythmic textures. McPhee stood at the back of the stage, listening with his eyes closed, judging his moment of entry. When it finally came his bubbling tenor initially echoed Duval's episodic patterns. Then as Rosen constantly varied the pulse in a busy interplay with the bass, McPhee gently caressed a slow spiritual sounding theme from his tenor saxophone.
The trio was preternaturally responsive to one another, playfully switching the lead around or moving from shout to whisper in an instant and in unison. In the first piece, a reflective lyrical passage from McPhee, floating over a frantic rhythm section (this juxtaposition being a fertile Trio X gambit), seamlessly morphed into Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower . Themes would suddenly appear like a picture coming into focus, only to be spun off at a tangent, until they were subsumed back into he musical ebb and flow. The band played seven pieces plus an encore, largely improvised in the moment, but often touching on familiar themes. "My Funny Valentine and "Goin' Home were both referenced, played with great tenderness by McPhee, for who these tunes clearly have a deep emotional resonance. Other pieces developed organically, from the pattering of McPhee's keypads, or a simple blues motif from Duval, before being taken on a journey into the unknown.
McPhee stuck to tenor saxophone for most of the set, apart from one short excursion on pocket trumpet. His penchant for contrasting the lyrical with the abstract, sometimes within the space of a few notes, was a constant feature. Such is McPhee's talent for extemporising achingly beautiful melancholy themes, that it was difficult to tell if he was following his muse or touching on some obscure gospel tune. McPhee embraced not only straight playing, albeit often with a hoarse vibrato adding to the emotional weight of his line, but also circular breathing, altissimo wailing, guttural swathes of sound and percussive keypad popping, in a magisterial display of the saxophonic arts.
First sitting, and then standing, the imposing Duval anchored the flow while issuing a stream of trenchant commentary. He frequently shaped the arc of the performance with a jaunty riff or a steady strum to redirect energies. His arco sweeps intertwined in a particularly winning combination with McPhee's tenor cries. After the first piece, Duval was sufficiently energised to remove his jacket to reveal a black vest and tattooed arms, but his black shades remained a fixture, worn carelessly like his virtuosity. There was a lovely moment in one solo spot, where he slid his fingers up and down the fretboard coaxing a sequence of gorgeous resonant slurred notes from his bass.
Rosen deployed a kaleidoscopic rhythmic cushion, a tight smile on his face as he sat upright looking away from his kit. His contribution ranged from delicate brushwork to thunderous explosions of different meters, always in sympathy with his peers, whether emphasising McPhee's repeated notes with punctuations on snare or embellishing Duval's riffs with intricate patterns on his hihat.
The highlight of the set came in a haunting improvisation which evolved into a heartfelt rendition of Ornette's "Lonely Woman , the theme, intoned so delicately that you felt if you breathed it would blow away. Duval bowed just above the bridge to draw out squeaks and overtones at a glacial pace, atop pattering brushwork from Rosen. McPhee blew long suspended notes, while swinging his horn from side to side. Then as Duval plucked ringing harmonics, McPhee circular breathed through his horn to produce delicate wavering squeals, while at the same time vocalising the theme, humming in his throat, producing an almost electronically distorted sound. It was an astonishing, electrifying moment, packing a visceral kick which raised the hairs on the back of my neck and formed the centrepiece of deeply moving version of Ornette's classic.
Extended technique put to truly musical use was not confined to McPhee's tenor. He started the next piece solo on pocket trumpet, sputtering through the diminutive horn with the bell placed over the mic and essaying a morse code of percussive tapping and breathy smears. Duval took off his shades and regarded McPhee intently, as he muted his horn with his hand and slowly backed away from the mic, while calling forth an incredibly quiet yet sustained high pitched squeal. As whole tones emerged from the ululations, a lyrical Spanish feel prevailed, until first bass then drums joined the fray and they were off once more.
At the end of a lengthy set, the band were all smiles and McPhee spoke for the first time, introducing his companions to an enthusiastic crowd who called them back for an encore: another Trio X favourite - "Blue Monk , laid down lovingly in a lazy loping tempo, with Rosen syncopating the head on his tuned drums before the process of deconstruction kicked in, refracting the theme through the lens of Trio X. Then back to the theme, before a unison finish, more smiles and a deep bow from McPhee.
Wonderful life enriching and affirming music, which set my wife and I on a high for the rest of the day before we flew back to the UK, goin' home.
Visit Joe McPhee on the web