Here we have a CD of live performances from Baltimore’s High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music 2000, centered around one of the most noteworthy participants. I think the word “experimental” really carries some weight here, because although most improvisation is inherently predicated on the pursuit of new musical ideas, even highly celebrated examples of improvisation typically operate within certain established parameters, often set by the personal vocabularies of the musicians. In contrast, High Zero, and more generally the Red Room concert series it’s an extension of, seems to thrive on calling any and all parameters of music into question. I see two main ways in which this more radical type of improvisation is achieved: by musicians who seem bent on constantly annihilating their own personal vocabularies, or by extremely heterogeneous collaborations. I find the latter route much more satisfying in general, because it’s compatible with musicians who have highly developed personal vocabularies and are capable of operating in a wide range of contexts, including conventionalized forms of improvisation, like the post-jazz variety, that still offer practically inexhaustible riches. Joe McPhee is such a musician, and I’m sure he had no idea that he would wind up having his name attached to one the year’s most exploratory, and downright strange, improv records; he just showed up with his horns and played. The lineup for each performance in the festival is chosen by the organizers.
There’s no point in beating around the bush: the big news is that McPhee’s disc contains an historic and massively successful 33-minute meeting between two of the towering figures in American improvisation, McPhee and multi-reedist Jack Wright. It turns out that they had briefly played together around 15 years ago, but it was just one of the many incidental encounters that are common in this field, and it left no ripples, perhaps because Wright was still in his self-described “wild man from Borneo” phase. When they met on September 22, 2000, though, they met as master musicians on an equal level, each with an extraordinarily broad range of expression ready to ooze from their every breath. In some ways it was an odd pairing: McPhee transcends jazz by having a deeply embodied understanding of it, while Wright transcends something or another, but whatever it is, he’s about as far from (or close to) the jazz continuum as a sarune etek player from Sumatra. The fact is, though, that the two share an unparalleled openness to new creative situations and a capacity to respond to just about anything with a astounding degree of musicality. McPhee regularly shares in the moment with obscure improvisers in off-the-map places, and Wright’s persistent dedication to playing anywhere at least one or two people will listen has earned him a reputation as the “Johnny Appleseed of improvised music”.
If these two men had met alone it would have still been a really special event, but the fact is that there were three people on stage and the contributions of Ian Nagoski to this performance require a bit of explanation, as they turned it into something quite different than “just another” stunning example of real-time interaction. If I simply said Nagoski played “electronics”, then one might imagine various blips and beeps and dense shards of sounds darting amongst McPhee and Wright’s elegant conversation, but Nagoski doesn’t trade in this type of currency, and he more or less flipped a few switches and filled the room with a thick sound mass that hung in the air, without much further intervention. Simple methodology, complex results. For starters, the very contour of Nagoski’s contribution didn’t invite the typical sort of interactions one expects in improvised music, yet he deeply influenced the music by introducing a sort of architecture of site-specific psycho-acoustic effects that the musicians were forced to operate within. In fact, I got the impression afterwards that this was a very disorienting experience for all three of them. Perhaps Nagoski felt like some sort of brash intruder on a nuanced exchange, and Wright and McPhee might have felt unable to hear the spaces between phrases in the way they were accustomed to, although there was nothing excessive or overbearing about Nagoski’s volume, even for an ardent supporter of quiet music like myself. The performance could be likened to an improvised duet conducted while standing atop an elephant at full gait: it’s not as though the two musicians are trading licks with the elephant, but they’re sure not going to forget where they’re standing. Actually, there’s a short section near the end where Nagoski’s modulations sped up from imperceptible to very slow, and he seemed to enter the music as a third voice instead of an environmental background. More than just indirectly affecting the music as a background, though, his sounds throughout had a direct impact on the emotional content of the music. In fact, Nagoski’s work in general seems to be a hyper-focused quest to forge a direct connection between emotion and sound, bypassing the usual mediation of rhythm, melody, dynamics, etc, and the results of his research were on full display.
I was not anxious to listen to this recording, simply because I recall walking away from the performance with a pretty hardcore “that was the most profound thing ever” feeling, and I was afraid of having to give up my idealized memories. However, my first listen to the disc about a year later left me thoroughly relieved; the magic made its way into 0’s and 1’s. It should be noted, however, that the full effect of Nagoski’s contribution was inextricably tied to the psycho-acoustic particularities of the performance space and is not as straightforwardly apparent on record. In particular, the biggest moment of the performance came when Nagoski pulled the plug after delivering a continuous sound mass for 30 minutes-it was like McPhee and Wright were transported from a dark subterraneous tunnel to the wide-open plains for the last 3 minutes of the piece; I’d never heard the space between notes sound so huge. Unreplicable, of course, but it’s still a pretty neat experience with headphones.
With all this necessary discussion of Nagoski’s role, it’s important to emphasize that McPhee and Wright were still the main sources of interest. Perhaps the unfamiliarity of both background and partner forced their interactions to be more transparent than usual, with McPhee often matching his phrasing to Wright’s more frequently supplied propositions. Wright has stronger anti-repetitive tendencies than McPhee and he seems to operate on a much smaller temporal scale, but they really found a lot of common ground. It’s noteworthy that McPhee started off the performance with his naked voice, making this the first recording in his massive discography with this distinction, although he is noted for singing independent lines while simultaneously playing saxophone, so his capacity for vocalization is highly developed. He alternated between voice and pocket trumpet throughout the piece. Wright mostly stuck to his saxophones, but picked up bass clarinet near the end. Unlike so many other wind duets, at no point did the pair resort to reckless and wild blowing, always sculpting their thoughts with one foot in silence. At the same time, though, this was not austere or minimalist, but rather vibrant and full-blooded.
The next piece on this disc is just plain strange, though not in a gimmicky or light-hearted sense. I was deeply puzzled during the concert itself, and remain so after numerous listens to the recording. This 15-minute piece is just the ticket for folks whose distaste for cliches and familiar sounds virtually demands the participation of alien beings. This was the first encounter between McPhee (on pocket trumpet and alto sax), percussionist Sean Meehan, and Michael Johnsen, who might be crudely labeled as the “Daniel Johnston of improv”. Johnsen alternated between fiddling with a big mess of tiny electronic contraptions on the floor far away from the others, playing saw with astounding technique, and sitting on stage snake-charmer style blowing extended undulating and rapid lines on soprano sax. Somebody needs to go to Pittsburgh with a microphone and a stack of blank recording media and document this guy. As for Meehan, there are tons of incredibly distinctive improvising percussionists in the world, and it’s always a joyful revelation to experience one for the first time. Meehan used a minimal setup, mainly a snare-drum with an array of unlikely objects that he deployed in highly creative ways. His playing was sparse and unpredictable. Each of the 4 pieces on this disc was recorded in a different space, and this is one where acoustics had the biggest influence. The room was like a massively oversized barn, and made for a totally different experience depending on where you were. From where I was sitting Meehan’s snare drum boomed and overpowered the other instruments, while other people reported an opposite experience. Fortunately there’s an excellent balance on the recording, but the reverberatory ramifications of the room are still in ample evidence and are perhaps the chief source of the strangeness I reported above. This strangeness is a very happy state of affairs, though, much like many Erstwhile recordings that similarly suggest new directions for free improvisation.
In another virgin encounter, McPhee performed with thereminist James Coleman and acoustic guitarist Jerry Lim, whose Bailey-isms and other-isms sound very comfortable amidst the tense and micro-detailed exchange between Coleman and McPhee. McPhee’s tenor sax playing is one of the main reasons why humans who are currently living should be very very happy, and if anyone tries to tell me there’s ever been a more sublime theremin improvisor than Coleman, I’m just not gonna believe ‘em. I would like this to be taken as an impassioned plea for a duo record to be made very soon.
The disc concludes with a 3-minute pocket trumpet solo recorded on a bridge, with tightly orchestrated traffic sounds swarming around his naked melodies.