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Joe McPhee & J: Manhattan Tango

John Kelman By

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Most free music can be daunting to the uninitiated. Free music where the instruments involved are incapable of chordal harmonies can be even more challenging. Freed of the reference points (or, as some free players would call them, constraints) of rhythm section instruments and more overtly harmonic definers, the result can often come across as dissonant, lacking in form and, to some, purely self-indulgent. The truth, however, is that in the proper hands, such liberation can expand the boundaries of the chosen instruments and their relationship with one another. Such is the case with Joe McPhee, this time found on pocket trumpet and voice, and flautist Jérôme Bourdellon. Manhattan Tango is a surprisingly rich set that demonstrates how two players with fine ears and a penchant for risk can create music that is at times harder edged to be certain, but also quite lyrical and beautiful.

What is clear from the get-go is that McPhee and Bourdellon are strong listeners. The eight free improvisations on this set don't suffer from the lack of focus that free music can sometimes display. Instead, each player is finely tuned to what the other is doing; on "Business Hour," where the two instruments appear, for the most part, to be exploring separate sonorities, they magically come together, periodically, for unison long tones. And that's only part of the picture. Being freed from traditional constraints doesn't mean an aversion to developing rhythmic figures, taking on semi-traditional roles. On "White Street, 17th" Bourdellon's freer style settles into a rhythmic pattern that provides both a basis for McPhee's more abstruse improvisation and a reference point for harmonic development, while on the title track McPhee provides the tango figure over which Bourdellon investigates rich possibilities.

Both players are in possession of extended techniques that broaden the sonic possibilities of their respective instruments. On "A.K.A.L.H.," named after Alain Kirill and Ariane Lopez-Huici, whose Manhattan loft was the location for this live recording, there are times where, if Bourdellon wasn't so clearly in the right channel of the recording and McPhee in the left, it would be impossible to know who was playing what.

The music ranges from the more obscure soundscape of "Pearls for Swine," where Bourdellon coaxes surprisingly percussive sounds out of his flute, to the lyrical "In the Noiseless Loft," where long tones and a more peaceful ambience show exactly how rich and full two lone wind instruments can be, in the right hands.

Manhattan Tango is clearly not for the less adventurous listener. Still, with an almost telepathic connection that results in some startling coalescence of sound, rhythm and texture, it makes a strong case that free music can be more than just a cacophony of sound, that it can be the meeting point for daring and an investigation into interaction that, in some respects, is all the more compelling for its lack of traditional framework.

Visit Joe McPhee on the web.


Track Listing: Business Hour; Pearls for Swine; White Street, 17th; A.K.A.L.H.; In the Noiseless Loft; Come Back Ella; Mystery "J"; Manhattan Tango

Personnel: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, voice), J

Title: Manhattan Tango | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Label Usine

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