Joe McPhee: New York, NY, 1971 and Pieces of Light


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What makes Joe McPhee's music so special is something that you may not consciously register at first—it moves differently from the music of his contemporaries. It's slower, polychromatic, concentrated and thick, and its dynamics are deeply subtle.

In the liner notes to his album Oleo (Hat Hut, 1982), McPhee discusses the concept of lateral thinking and its relationship to the Po Music ensemble. One often thinks of music vertically (scales, modes, crescendos and dynamics), but the idea of lateral music lends itself particularly well to improvisation. A conversational field, encompassing interaction on equal planes through constant variance of relationships, could be a more appropriate angle for this music.

Of course, lateralness isn't limited to immediate temporal-spatial-sound relationships. It also applies to an interaction between different musics. Non-western, jazz, blues, funk, pan-tonal, African, Asian, European—the list goes on.

Joe McPhee Survival Unit II
NY NY 1971

In the fall of 1971, McPhee brought his regular trio with pianist Mike Kull and drummer Harold E. Smith (a stalwart of Byard Lancaster's group, who also worked with Frank Wright) into the WBAI-FM Free Music Store studios for a Sunday afternoon concert. The trio was augmented by brass guru Clifford Thornton and saxophonist Byron Morris (who later expanded on some of McPhee's free-funk ideas with his own Unity).

Six McPhee originals were recorded and released as NY NY 1971 (aka At WBAI's Free Music Store). As is common with McPhee performances from the '70s, the set starts with a fierce, free-blues, tenor-drums duet, on this occasion an incarnation of "Black Magic Man. McPhee runs through screaming multiphonics, R&B honks and twisted brays as Smith's archly suspended swing keeps the performance in flow. "Nation Time, a Miles-esque riff, is expanded into a free wash of cymbals and pointillist stabs over which tenor and soprano, and Thornton's exquisite rainy-day weight, echo in rooms sparser than crowded, gritty funk often puts forward.

There's a strange listening habit that you might find yourself adopting with McPhee's music, especially that of the '70s: you forget each solo almost instantly, because every succeeding musician's contribution is so concentrated, specific and delicate—and wholly absorbing. In "Nation Time, for instance, Kull's piano seems isolated from Thornton's baritone horn, which in turn is worlds removed from McPhee's surly tenor. As solo character shifts, so too do the dynamics, rhythm and scope of the piece—and dramatically so.

"Song For Lauren is an expansive, gestural ballad of steadily rising sonic floes, with Kull's poetic Tyner-isms almost icy in comparison to the initial trio's hot expressionism. "Harriet —a dedication to Harriet Tubman, after whose work McPhee named Underground Railroad (CJR-1, reissued on Atavistic)—is given orchestral treatment of a stately and deft urgency, one which looks to the brass-ensemble writing of Thornton, Bill Dixon and Mike Mantler.

Joe McPhee & John Snyder
Pieces Of Light

One example of the possibilities inherent in lateral music-making is the use of overdubs. McPhee first used these with his original Survival Unit band, which consisted of McPhee together with tapes of previous performances. (The idea was revisited in Survival Unit II, where McPhee is heard overdubbed on "The Looking Glass I ). In conjunction with ARP synthesizer artist John Snyder, who McPhee worked with throughout the second half of the '70s, he recorded Pieces Of Light. Reissued on CD by Atavistic, this 1974 recording was the final instalment in the CJR series.

Not only are McPhee's acoustically-produced brass, reed and percussion sounds heard in contrast with often-spacey electronics, they are often juxtaposed one with another. "Shadow Sculptures finds McPhee on a slew of hanging chimes, a Nagoya harp and trumpet (all multi-tracked), as Snyder's ARP adds surreal mechanization to the ethereal, brooding contrasts of McPhee's instruments—delicate brass soliloquy, pastoral rustle and otherworldly chirps are unified.

Acoustic/electronic disparities are even more vividly realized in the opener, "Prologue/ Twelve," a pairing of two unaccompanied expositions, the first on free-blues tenor, the second on synthesizer in startling kinship (they later crash in hurtling concert on "Les Heros Sont Fatigues ). "Windows In Dreams presents stark drones over which the harp's bent notes and McPhee's throaty flute emerge in desolate trio. Snyder sounds more organic as instrumental approaches blend (whether this is due to the listener's growing familiarity, the music's own structure or the players' empathy is moot).

Though "Colors In Crystal presents McPhee on his usual arsenal of brasses and reeds, the enormous range of the preceding pieces presents the gruff shades of tenor, trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn as something new and unexpected. Pieces Of Light is not just a blues, not just a tonal exploration, but a nuanced dissertation on the interdisciplinary possibilities of improvisation.

Tracks and Personnel

NY NY 1971

Tracks: Announcement; Black Magic Man; Announcement; Nation Time; Song For Lauren; Announcement; Message From Denmark; The Looking Glass I; Harriet.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor saxophone, tape and cornet; Byron Morris: soprano and alto saxophone; Clifford Thornton: cornet and baritone horn; Mike Kull: piano; Harold E. Smith: drums.

Pieces Of Light

Tracks: Prologue/Twelve; Shadow Sculptures; Les Heros Sont Fatigues; Windows In Dreams; Red Giant; Colors In Crystal.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor saxophone, trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, alto horn, flute, chimes, harp, voice; John Snyder: synthesizer


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