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The Solitary Symphonies Of Joe McPhee

Precipitated by a continuing proliferation of recordings and a busy schedule of performances, awareness of Joe McPhee's music is steadily on the rise. A look at his discography reveals that nearly half of the albums released in his entire career came to light in the decade of the 90s. Why has it taken the larger jazz cognoscenti so long to catch up with McPhee? One possible answer lies in the fact that he made his initial splash in the collective jazz consciousness in the early 70s after a multitude of other musicians had already muddied the waters with their own achievements. Coltrane, Coleman and Ayler were still at the center of many peoples' minds. Consequently, though small numbers of diligent listeners were actively aware of his work, many among the minority who were interested in freer sounds to begin with focused their attentions on the more established figures of the moment. Add to the equation the reality that jazz, and particularly free jazz, was mired in another downswing as far as critical acceptance (many eyes were turned to the blinding electricity of fusion) and the reasons behind McPhee's gradual ascendancy become less arcane.

Perhaps signaling a change in the times, critical acclaim has followed closely on the coattails of each of McPhee's more recent releases. The positive publicity combined with the security afforded by increased touring and recording opportunities has allowed him the room for reflection into the state of his art. All of these factors have also facilitated a continuing interest in his earlier work.

Like many of his peers McPhee considers solo performance to be an integral aspect of his repertoire. His solo Tenor project recorded for Hat Hut in 1976 remains one of the most legendary facets of his ever-expanding oeuvre. In mid-1996 McPhee entered the studio and recorded another solo album, As Serious As Your Life, in commemoration of Tenor's 20th anniversary. Hatology released the session in 1998 in a limited edition of 1500 copies. Two years later, plans were finally realized to reissue Tenor itself, which has been out of circulation almost since it's first release on vinyl, as part of the label's 25th anniversary. Attached to the original material is another solo improvisation recorded a year later in Paris which follows a complimentary path to its predecessor.

Both of these seminal documents represent McPhee at the peak of his craft, but each offers decidedly different ingress into his seemingly boundless improvisational intellect. Tenor—as its name implies—is completely devised on tenor saxophone. McPhee meets the challenge of performing for nearly an hour, alone, on a single instrument, head-on from the opening billowy phrases of "Knox." His gorgeous throaty inflection caresses the melodic center of the piece, alternating forceful split tones with splayed resonating lines. Throughout all of the pieces on the disc McPhee envelops his phrasings in heavy clusters of vibrato-laden notes that hang in the air like corpulent grapes from a vine. "Goodbye Tom B" builds an elegiac lament to a departed friend in a tumbling descent of growling harmonics. Lush linear lines and spasmodic multiphonics vie for the affection on "Sweet Dragon" as McPhee threatens to blow his mouthpiece apart in a blast of embouchure straining pressure.

The disc's title piece is also the centerpiece and serves as the most marvelous display of McPhee's boundless faculties. His work throughout maintains a stunning balance between fearsome technique and boundary-shattering vision. Sharp piercing streaks reach stratospheric heights launching his reed even beyond the limits first challenged by Ayler. There is a point mid-way through the piece where he plays the same fluttering progression a succession of times each time varying the theme with an unbelievable array of extended effects. This is one of those rare recordings that guarantees never to relinquish all of its mysteries even after an infinite number of listenings; there's just too much happening here for the topography ever to be mapped in its entirety.

As Serious As Your Life is just as essential and the sides of McPhee it brings to light are diverse representations of his musical spectacle. A far more complete picture of his instrumental palette is provided, but gone is the 'purity' of a single instrumental voice as McPhee opts to employ studio manipulation tactics, albeit sparingly. The most immediate difference is a program of greater sonic variation. The opening "Death of Miles Davis", an eulogistic tribute that features sound processed pocket cornet weaves a haunting remembrance of the departed trumpeter. A continued dedicatory trend follows through to the other pieces where McPhee honors his diverse influences enumerating each artist in musical form. McPhee places necessary focus on his various reeds, though his piano does surface on "Conlon In The Land of Ra". The reading of "The Man I Love" is the most alien among the compositions, making charitable use of electronics as an envelope for McPhee's writhing tenor. As if in deference to presence of the studio "Party Lights", a spoken word poem, communicates the primacy of music relating its longevity and transcendence beyond the confines of technology as something that lives on in everyone. Such a sentiment provides fitting closure to this important codex in McPhee's continuing journey and reminds us that though these recordings are treasures to be savored they should not preclude the necessity of witnessing McPhee's music in person.

It may have taken many of us a while to catch up with McPhee, but there has never been a better time to access his ever-expanding canvas. Like the greatest and most universal works of art his music defies definitive description while at the same time actively encouraging attempts at it. In the final reasoning none of these written approximations do it justice. It is something you simply have to hear. His solitary symphonies are but one facet, there are many others to choose from.