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Joe McPhee / Jamie Saft / Joe Morris / Charles Downs: Ticonderoga

Troy Collins By

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Ticonderoga was inspired by a conversation between Joe Morris and Jamie Saft regarding their mutual admiration for John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard Again (Impulse!, 1966). Paying homage to the historic date, the pair invited free jazz veterans Joe McPhee and Charles Downs to convene for an informal recording session at Saft's studio in the Catskill Mountains, located just down the river from Ticonderoga, a Mohawk word meaning "the junction of two waterways."

Lending credence to the album's title, this truly is a multi-generational summit meeting; when told about the project's origin, McPhee informed his collaborators that he was in the front row of the audience at the Village Vanguard the very night the legendary Coltrane set was taped. Downs, formerly known as Rashid Bakr, has manned the skins for Cecil Taylor, Jemeel Moondoc and William Parker, among many other loft jazz-era legends.

Embracing a purely acoustic aesthetic, Morris joins the rhythm section, playing upright bass instead of his usual electric guitar. Although known for his expertise on vintage analog keyboards, Saft turns his attention to the piano, eliciting harp-like flourishes and scintillating glissandos that evoke his love of Alice Coltrane's technique. Even McPhee, a renowned multi-instrumentalist, limits himself to tenor and soprano for this effort. A distinctive stylist, McPhee's burnished tone and oblique phrasing channels the rhapsodic fervor of late-period Coltrane without ever resorting to mere imitation, even when using the same instrumental combination. Downs' subtle timekeeping provides incessant forward momentum, driving the quartet with hypnotic patterns and rollicking polyrhythms.

The record's four long improvisations channel the experimental spirit that defined The New Thing; Saft conjures a kaleidoscopic mosaic of sound by playing directly on the piano's strings in "Beyond Days" and McPhee vocalizes through his soprano on "Leaves of Certain." Underscored by Morris' steadfast bass and Downs' roiling kit work, Saft's luminous asides and McPhee's rapturous testimonials provide ardent lyricism to "Simplicity of Man," while "A Backward King," climaxes at a fevered pitch, as Morris and Downs' nervy pulse spurs thorny interplay between McPhee's bristling tenor and Saft's prismatic cascades.

Using post-war avant-garde innovations as inspiration, this all-star affair exudes a rarefied focus. Expanding upon the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic advances established by Coltrane and his spiritual brethren half a century ago, Ticonderoga is a bracingly vital reminder of the expressive potential of free music.

Track Listing: Beyond Days; Simplicity of Man; Leaves of Certain; A Backward King.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: tenor and soprano saxophones; Jamie Saft: piano; Joe Morris: bass; Charles Downs: drums.

Title: Ticonderoga | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Clean Feed Records


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