Fourty years after his first album, Joe McPhee releases again a superb record, and it is revelatory for other reasons as well. It is also a tribute to Albert Ayler, whose trumpet-playing brother Donald he met in a record store in 1965, and who introduced McPhee to his music. McPhee was like so many other musicians deeply influenced by Ayler's music, combining free form with traditional spirituals, giving the overall sound something deeply rooted and liberating at the same time. Yet it is a typically McPhee album, who is much more refined technically than Ayler ever was, more subtle, more modern too, and in the last five years, certainly less violent. The album is also remarkable for its unusual four bass accompaniment, with Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Paul Rogers and Claude Tchamitian adding their skills and deep interaction with McPhee's tenor, alto and pocket trumpet. I think Tchamitian is possibly the only of the four with whom McPhee never released an album before. It is to my knowledge the only bass quartet release, apart from William Parker's "Requiem", and even if the four basses are often hard to discern, and certainly to attribute to any player, their variation in approach, the constant background rumbling, pluckings, bowings and other extended techniques give the music something solidly fundamental and moving. The other remarkable aspect is that the album is the second Ayler Tribute that McPhee collaborates on this year, the other one was released this month, and more on it later.
The first CD has only one hour-long title track, on which McPhee moves through some "Aylerian" sounds, but also vaguely touches his own rendition of "My Funny Valentine", and this in between high intensity pure sound interaction with the four basses, Duval starts the main theme of Coleman's "Lonely Woman", without being expanded upon, but the piece is predominantly free improvisation full of tension, emotional and spiritual moments. The first CD was recorded at the Europa Jazz Festival in Le Mans, France on May 1, 2000. The second, recorded 17 days later at Action Jazz, Pannonica (France), starts with Ayler's "Goin' Home", a sad and moving piece, that's become almost a fixture on McPhee's playlist, followed by "Ol' Man River", played by McPhee on tenor solo for a whole 9 minutes, and very sensitive and powerful. "Angels and Other Aliens" is the pièce-de-résistance on the second CD, with the four basses again throbbing in full force in possibly the most free piece, with the basses having the most interesting conversations of the whole album. The last track, "The Gift", is dedicated to Donald Ayler, and is of a great beauty. Again, a great album by McPhee, and true, I love his playing, so my sense of criticism is often a little softened. Apart from being a tribute to Albert Ayler, the album is also an ode to life and to music, and being that, very sad and hopeful at the same time. A great album.
P.S. For those of you who, like me, are not English native speakers: a "haint" is colloquialism from the south of the US, meaning "a ghost, an apparition, a lost soul". The title of the album clearly refers to the Ayler pieces "spirits", "ghosts" and "saints".