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Joe McPhee: Sonic Elements

Mark Corroto By

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Joe McPhee: Sonic Elements Ernest Hemingway might have said it best: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." For musician Joe McPhee, delivering that one true sentence has been his motivation since the 1960s.

An in-demand improviser, he can be heard in multiple settings including the bands of Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark, as a guest of the Deep Listening Band, Trespass Trio and Decoy, and with the rock band, Cato Salsa Experience. He maintains his longstanding association with Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen in Trio X, and can also be heard in an Albert Ayler tribute band. His duo recordings find him with the likes of Evan Parker, Joe Giardullo, Daunik Lazro and Michael Bisio but is, perhaps, best heard with drummers Paal Nilssen-Love and Hamid Drake.

The question may be whether he wrote that "one true sentence" in a Swiss farmhouse in 1976. The out-of-print solo recording, Tenor (Hat Hut, 1977), and its subsequent reissue, Tenor & Fallen Angels (Hatology, 2000), is a stunning session that has been referenced by many a musician (and journalist) as a life-changing listening experience.

McPhee has since recorded a half dozen solo sessions, including this live date (although the audience is never heard) from the 2012 Slovenian Ljubljana Jazz Festival. Setting his tenor saxophone aside, he plays two lengthy pieces: first, a tribute to Don Cherry on a pocket trumpet; then an alto saxophone salute to Ornette Coleman. Neither piece is imitative, nor are they peppered with covers of the two great men. McPhee choses, instead, to delve into the meditative and sonic outposts of the two chosen instruments.

"Episode One (for Don Cherry)" begins beyond the trumpet, in silence. Then comes the breathy blown non-note, a combination of vocalizations and air. McPhee invents his horn, or maybe reinvents music here. From the purity of first sounds comes tentative notes, trills and splats. He whispers and summons a tale of memory here. Same for his take on Coleman and "Episode Two." A bit of a saxophone workout, McPhee exercises a trip around honking corners before dropping some blues: a sort-of melancholy hymn. The performance is more a storytelling then musical experience; maybe McPhee's one true sentence.


Track Listing: Episode One (for Don Cherry): Wind, Water; Episode Two (for Ornette Coleman): Earth/Fire, Old Eyes.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: pocket trumpet, alto saxophone.

Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Clean Feed Records | Style: Modern Jazz


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