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True to their word the folks behind the Unheard Music Series have continued in their charge of returning all Joe McPhee’s early recordings for the CJR label to circulation. The latest installment and McPhee’s debut as a leader, Underground Railroad does one better by adding an entire archival concert to the package. At the risk of completely compromising any sense of critical objectivity at the inception of this review let me just say that as far as vintage ecstatic free jazz goes it doesn’t get much more nail-biting than this.
Nearly seven minutes elapse on the title track before the entrance of the horns and it’s a space filled with Bostic’s tumultuous percussion. Harnessing the energy of a human dynamo the drummer hammers and pounds with a muscular vigor that truly punishes his kit. McPhee’s solo, chased by Marks’ keening soprano wail, is awash in knotty flutters and dive-bombing register drops. Crabb’s muddy bass foray bleeds out much of the momentum, but the horns soon return with McPhee squeezing off staccato brass shots and Marks’ offering bristling retorts on hoary tenor. With “Harriett” the band jackknifes into more Classically-cped waters. Bostic’s vibes fuse with Crabb’s crystalline arco lines creating a luminous surface of harmonics for the horns to skate across. Marks’ flute adds further color and floats above the darker layered lines. “Message from Denmark” unfolds in a string of solo statements from McPhee and Crabb before a headlong rush into roiling ensemble release. Marks’ quotes tangentially from “A Love Supreme” in the latter half above Bostic’s cascading barrage.
The remainder of the disc is devoted to the opening pieces of an earlier concert held in the same space six months previous. Under the collective rubric of the Contemporary Improvisational Ensemble McPhee and his cohorts augmented by the reeds of Greene and Virigillio turn in a performance of a caliber that belies the leader’s relative youth. “New Spiritual No. 1” suffers from a lapse in horn audibility, but Marks’ mammoth solo surmounts such surface obstacles coalescing into arguably his most arresting statement of the date. The high energy he cuts loose stands in strong contrast to the flimsy ending of the piece. Einstien’s equation of “E=MC²" acts as signifier for the disc’s closing tone poem and Marks is again in brilliant form sounding both scientific and ecstatic.
The set’s second disc completes the concert. After a tumultuous recasting of Monk’s “Evidence” retitled “Justice” for the occasion the band breaks into the soulful and tellingly-titled “Windy City Head Stompin’ Blues” atop the funky backbeats of Bostic. Layering the horns in radiating arcs it’s a piece that pays soulful homage to victims of police violence. The two-part suite “Birmingham Sunday” is also dedicatory in design and touches musically on the travesty of the church bombing which murdered four black schoolgirls in 1963. Marks’ incantatory flute preface flanked by bells and shakers sets a somber mood that later turns caustic under the crushing force of crying horns, bowed bass and crashing drums and what sounds like feedback distortion from the mics. McPhee’s solo seventeen minutes is another a highlight of the performance, at once aggressive and lyrically moving. The closing number matches Flamenco overtones with spacey organ fills from the versatile Marks. In sum this set shows conclusively that McPhee’s massive talent was at his disposal from the onset of his earliest efforts. Any fan of ecstatic free jazz shouldn’t pass this one up!
UMS/Atavisitic on the web: http://www.atavistic.com
Track Listing: Disc One: Underground Railroad (22:43)/ Harriet (11:07)/ Message from Denmark (9:49)/ New Spiritual No. 1 (14:19)/ E=MC
Personnel: Disc One: Joe McPhee- trumpet, pocket cornet, tenor saxophone; Reggie Marks- tenor & soprano saxophone, flute; Tyrone Crabb- bass; Ernest Bostic- drums, percussion, vibes. Recorded: April 13, 1969, West Park, NY. Disc Two: Joe McPhee- trumpet, tenor saxophone, alto horn; Reggie Marks- tenor saxophone, flute, organ; Otis Greene- alto saxophone, harmonica; Joe Virgillio- tenor & soprano saxophones; Tyrone Crabb- bass; Ernest Bostic- drums, percussion. Recorded: October 13, 1968, West Park, NY.