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Magic: Joe McPhee with Trio X and Mikolaj Trzaska at Firehouse 12 in New Haven

Lyn Horton By

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Magic
Firehouse 12
New Haven, Connecticut
October 31, 2008

The wonder of magic is captured in transformation: witnessing how seemingly disparate elements merge and evolve into something greater than its parts with an impact that is unexpected and glistens with beauty. That Joe McPhee so aptly named the combination of Trio X and Mikolaj Trzaska, "Magic," is evidence of his understanding that out of two separate entities something wonderful could happen, and so it did, at Firehouse 12, on October 31, 2008.

As McPhee explained at the beginning of the concert, he met altoist Mikolaj Trzaska when Trio X was touring Poland. The recording Intimate Conversations documented that meeting, without bassist Dominic Duval. But McPhee concluded that the four would make a solid quartet. And he was right.

There was good music to be heard during the evening, but the occasion of this rare meeting of creative minds transcended the music. It was an event where the sensitivity of one musician to another could be discerned by all in attendance, detected and appreciated because the band operated as one organism.



Bassist Duval and drummer Jay Rosen established the conditions in which the music could take root and grow. The texture was smooth; the volume was low; the colors were balanced from a low bass flutter to a light cymbal hiss. Increasingly, the bass and drums became more engaged; rhythm ensued. McPhee, alto in hand, waited until the appropriate moment to introduce the horn component with quick midrange valving that swooped into increasingly stronger low tones to catapult into a single emphasized high pitch, at which point he stopped. Then Trzaska, standing in the middle of the performance area with his alto, blew melodiously, incorporating deep-toned ostinatos, his unmistakable personal voice gradually replacing the sound if a mere reed.

Trzaska's tempo regulated the bass and drums. The altoist separated the notes of the melody, moving them into an array of arpeggios. Duval steadily plucked the strings within the pulse, accenting it by forcefully pulling the strings and letting them snap back. Rosen picked up the pace on drums, building to a cymbal/snare crash. At that point McPhee intercepted Trzaska's arpeggios in a blast whose torrents soon subsided to the same dynamics of the melodic mode Trzaska had introduced. This was the peak; all four musicians playing at their capacity and in support of one another, rather than going different directions. The descent toward a transition became clear as Duval plucked 1-2, 1-2 and reached below the bass's bridge to tweak out phrasing resembling a lullaby; Rosen hushed the drums; and Trzaska pushed air through the reed.

It was a transition to another surge, in which the bowed bass sounded agitated; both altos rang out through the vibratos characterizing their urgent exclamations; and small-to-large cymbals were merely touched with a brush. Waves from one instrument to the other washed over the room: Duval bowed the bass arduously; Trzaska repeated figure after figure while McPhee rose above the band's collective sound with a huge melody to end with prolonged notes that provided a counterpoint to Trzaska's peaked valving/singing combination. Closure was nearing as the two altos maintained a tightly coordinated flight pattern: Trzaska's notes were short, McPhee's were long. Duval pulled his bow across the bass strings in a final stroke.

Whatever happened in the first piece exemplified the trust that the musicians had in one another—implicit faith that no individual was going to fall short of what was necessary to make the music work as a collective expression. The succeeding pieces proved to be nothing less than manifestations of flexibility within unity. Call-and-response passages metamorphosed into the profound resolutions that can can develop only from deep conversation.

The instrumentation achieved balance; there was no straining. Duval rendered his contributions at once fluid and grounding; his participation was rich and full, never borrowing from others' lines, but intent on accentuating them with glissandos, fingers swirling in circles across the bass strings, or with dedicated bowed strokes which embellished the resonant sounds. Rosen shines with his attention to detail: it is the dynamic of his percussive language. Without him, the band might lose an intensity that invigorates its overall timbral brilliance and subtlety.

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