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Joe McPhee: Voices: 10 Improvisations

Lyn Horton By

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Being able to speak a language well implies a command of its syntactical dimensions. A fearless approach to maximizing the expression of ideas within language signifies creativity. Common to both a command of language and creativity is the principle of voice, which distinguishes itself from all similar practice. In music, voice simply, unquestionably, identifies how the musician and instrument mix.



Voices: 10 Improvisations, featuring brass and reedman, Joe McPhee, and percussionist John Heward, opens with the minimal yet profound "Improvisation 1." McPhee's pocket trumpet is extremely close to the microphone, the sound bubbly, full of breath and life-forming—a signifier of Beginning. From there, the musical concepts grow and expand. The pocket trumpet slowly wakes up and sharpens its personality.



Applying himself in the same way, Heward introduces himself on "Improvisation 2" with the kalimba (thumb piano). The dullness of the kalimba contrasts with the resonance that occurs when McPhee blows the pocket trumpet with precision. At the turning point in this track, Heward switches to the drum set, as McPhee leaves the melody, launches into abstraction, and returns to a recapitulation of the theme to close. McPhee engages his pocket trumpet to a point where his breath can push forth no more sound. He then takes up the soprano sax to create the next stirring voice.



A dynamic of difference between the two players prolongs the exploration of how best the two instrumentalists can speak their language. Both musicians take their instruments to their extremes but not in an explosive sense. Peaks are touched briefly and subtly within the limits of the instruments, as each musician meets the needs of the other.



The dry quality of the snare played with hands instead of sticks, the non-resonance of the kalimba, mallets on the tom and the slightest cymbal sibilance is pitted against the way in which the soprano flares with a liquid ring of tremolos, unabashed arpeggios and the squeal that is emitted as the reed meets the tongue for an elegant melody. In "Improvisations 8" and "Improvisations 9," the sax and drums fully unwind and unravel in continuous motion.



Considered as a whole, the recording possesses proportion, with the music moving forth as a discussion. There are very few repetitions of a horn phrase or drum riff. Both players, either singly or in relation to one another, take steps that are unique. The solos are few; neither musician allowing the other to monopolize the musical space. The rhythm circulates within the boldness of statements rather than being exposed outright. Bent pitches, split tones and dissonance on the saxophone creep in only towards the conclusion of the recording.



The purity and range of tone emanating from the pocket trumpet and soprano give this recording presence, notwithstanding the design of Voices, which itself glows with integrity. Integrity that is cultivated from diversity, invested with purpose and substance, and evocative of whatever the next moments offer.


Track Listing: Improvisation 1; Improvisation 2; Improvisation 3; Improvisation 4; Improvisation 5; Improvisation 6; Improvisation 7; Improvisation 8; Improvisation 9; Improvisation 10.

Personnel: Joe McPhee: pocket trumpet, soprano sax; John Heward: drums, kalimba.

Title: Voices: 10 Improvisations | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Mode Records

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