Joe McPhee Everything Happens For a Reason Roaratorio Records
As an improviser, Joe McPhee's art has taken several interesting turns and shifts in focus that one listening to his first few recordings might not have expected. Schooled on trumpet from his youth and studying the tenor saxophone starting at age 29, McPhee's brilliant smears of sound on his composition "O.C.T (that is, Ornette, Cecil and Trane) are altogether prophetic and too brief on his first recording, as a sideman on one track of trombonist Clifford Thornton's Freedom and Unity (Third World, 1967; Atavistic, 2001).
To be sure, Donald Ayler, Don Cherry, and Bill Dixon are there, but it would take a number of years and a number of dates to figure out how much McPhee was there, too. Since the late '80s, McPhee has worked with sound artist Pauline Oliveros and reedman Joe Giardullo in a deep-listening chamber ensemble, expanding upon the "lateral playing" of his Po Music workshop. Yet the solo setting is often where the artist's processes can most readily be studied.
Following four group recordings for CJR (the label of his friend, painter Craig Johnson) and two for then-fledgling Swiss label Hat Hut, McPhee recorded an album's worth of solo tenor pieces, from blues to sound-art, for the 1976 album Tenor. Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, and Evan Parker had been doing solo saxophone concerts and recordings throughout the '70s, but Tenor was the first to feature its namesake instrument in naked glory across two entire sides.
Following Graphics in 1978, eighteen years passed before As Serious as Your Life (a nod to Valerie Wilmer's tome) was recorded, the third installment of McPhee solo (also on Hat Hut). Despite the fact that McPhee performs solo with relative frequency and immediately comes up in conversations surrounding solo reedmen, Everything Happens for a Reason is only his fifth solo recording in an almost forty-year career, released by Minneapolis' Roaratorio in an edition of 500 LPs with parchment-faced sleeves and black paint drizzles (the first twenty-six with fully hand-painted jackets) by Judith Lindbloom, who apparently introduced Steve Lacy to the transatlantic art scene.
Like its precedent, this set, recorded live in 2003 at the Festival Music Unlimited in Wels, Austria, features McPhee on several instruments in his arsenal (excepting tenor) for six sound pieces: five by the "leader," plus Ellington's "Come Sunday. The set opens with "Mythos for solo cornet, an extension of smears and vocal sounds from the palette of free brass playing across a gradation of fields and swaths of paint, not a friendly daub in sight. "Come Sunday is played on alto, the instrument least associated with McPhee but with echoes of Eric Dolphy, who performed it on bass clarinet accompanied only by bassist Richard Davis (Iron Man, Douglas, 1964).
A darkly moody theme as it is played by both reedmen, McPhee's version replicates the woodiness of Dolphy's rendering of the stark material, turning it into a frozen pastoral with brief flashes of viciousness. Granted, the rawness of earlier efforts is still here; the title track harps on a vibrato-heavy phrase, repeating and expanding it into a wealth of multiphonic squall, tortured blues, and oblique nursery-rhyme motifs. In short, were it played on tenor rather than alto, it would have made the cut on Tenor. "J2 (an homage to the artist's father) is ostensibly another cornet piece, but whereas the album opener was at least recognizable, here it is buried in spurts and breaths, moving to guttural drones that recall throat-singing, attaching a literal resonance that the instrument has rarely exemplified.
Looking backwards and forwards is part of lateral thinking, the ability to find possibility in all aspects of existence, and in playing music, to work with an open mind to both one's cohorts and oneself. With Everything Happens for a Reason, McPhee and his art are bare, but with an infinite number of suits available for the choosing.
Track listing: Mythos, Vieux Carré, Come Sunday, Everything Happens for a Reason, J2, Voices.
Personnel: Joe McPhee: alto and soprano saxophones, cornet.