|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.
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.
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.