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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Joe McPhee Quintet/Ernie Bostic Quartet – Live at Vassar, 1970 (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2012) ***½

By Troy Dostert

Thanks to the efforts of John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, founders of the new label Corbett v. Dempsey, we have another document of tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee’s development in the early 1970s.  Many readers of this blog will already be familiar with McPhee’s work during this period, as his now-legendary Nation Time captured him live at a concert at Vassar College in 1970, the same year and venue in which this double-disc release was recorded.  Nation Time was representative of a new era of experimentation merging free jazz, funk and soul.  While this release doesn’t quite hold up in comparison to McPhee’s earlier masterpiece, and generally stays in more conventional jazz territory in its repertoire, there are numerous interesting moments on it, and it also gives us a listen to the Ernie Bostic quartet, which is made up largely of musicians who played with McPhee on the Nation Time record.

The first of the two discs is Bostic’s, who does not play drums here (as he did on Nation Time), but rather takes a turn on vibes, while drumming duties are given to Charlie Benjamin.  The rest of the quartet is made up of Otis Greene (alto sax) and Herbie Leaman (organ).  The overall feel to this group is one of restraint: although Greene is a fine saxophonist and offers some creative, pensive soloing on the opening cut, “Flowers for Mattie B,” the rest of the group is content to let things simmer on slow burn over the song’s two-chord vamp.  The second track is a relatively staid organ-jazz take on Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” offering satisfying playing but nothing that really stirs the pot.  Things do get a bit more interesting on “Resolution,” from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, were Greene once again gets a substantial amount of space to offer his insights into the tune with a fiery and exploratory solo.  Even so, while the dynamics of Bostic’s generally capable vibe playing and Leaman’s organ work create a fair bit of tension and mystery as the track gets going, the end result leaves one wanting more.  The spirit of aggression and sheer funkiness these guys brought to Nation Time is generally absent here.  It’s also a very short disc, with only about 30 minutes of music on it; and it doesn’t really end so much as gradually fade during Benjamin’s inconclusive drum solo on “Resolution.”  One gets the impression that Bostic’s band is included here mainly as a historical documentation of some of McPhee’s close associates rather than as a body of music that can stand on its own.

On the second of the discs we have McPhee, joined by Byron Morris on alto sax, Mike Kull on piano, Tyrone Crabb on electric bass, and Bruce Thompson on drums.  With the exception of Morris, McPhee’s group here was hugely important in the development of McPhee’s funk and soul-based excursions on Nation Time, and we can hear some of that here, although it’s generally in a more muted form than on the earlier recording.  Many of the cuts are jazz standards, played fairly conventionally (although with McPhee, it’s never going to be too conventional).  McPhee doesn’t even put in an appearance on the opening cuts, “On Green Dolphin Street,” and “Spring Street,” and while the band plays these tunes with the requisite degree of zeal and quality musicianship, the absence of the star of the show definitely starts to wear on the patience of the listener.

When McPhee does come in, it’s on the third cut, “Muntu,” which is really the centerpiece of the disc, offering a level of dynamism, energy and rhythmic creativity that McPhee provides when he’s at his best.  McPhee opens the song with a vigorous statement of the tune’s melody, played freely with the rhythm section supporting his thoughts until kicking in with a driving post-bop groove that McPhee solos over with a fiery and commanding presence.  What’s terrific about this track is that while McPhee wails with abandon, the rhythm section shifts the rhythmic foundation underneath him, eventually moving into a funk-based pattern about two-thirds of the way through the track.  The electric bass work of Tyrone Crabb is particularly worthy of mention, as he frequently explores rhythmic possibilities that lead his bandmates into new directions as the song develops.  At over fifteen minutes, the creative shifts, turns and grooves of “Muntu” are what make the disc worth hearing.

The remainder of the disc is comprised of “Maybell’s Blues,” two additional standards (“Softly, as In a Morning Sunrise” and “Stella By Starlight”), and a bit of a wildcard track (“The Looking Glass Eye”).  McPhee offers his customary powerful blowing on these tracks; yes, he can more than hold his own on a traditional blues number, as “Maybell’s Blues” reveals.  And as one would expect, McPhee’s take on the standards is also capable of raising some eyebrows.  The churning support of the rhythm section on “Softly” plays a key role in propelling McPhee’s powerful soloing on that track.  As for “The Looking Glass Eye,” it involves McPhee and the others improvising over a taped recording—what sounds like electric guitar, initially, played in jagged shards, and then a series of horn parts played in harmony.  It’s an interesting glimpse of the more experimental side of McPhee’s playing, and the rest of the band is clearly having fun with the track as well, especially toward the end of the song as McPhee and Kull spar with each other, just before the track fades out. Despite its promising moments of collective improvisation, however, in the context of the relatively straightahead material offered on the rest of the disc, it definitely sounds like a one-off “experiment” of sorts. (McPhee mentions in his introduction to the song that “we’re not sure how it’s gonna go,” given that his bandmates hadn’t heard the recorded parts prior to the performance). 

Perhaps McPhee’s work here doesn’t quite measure up to the lofty standard set by Nation Time.  But to be fair, that record really is a one-of-a-kind statement, a genre-defining effort that will always stand as one of his best recordings.  His playing here remains potent and compelling, and this release is definitely of value in helping to trace the arc of McPhee’s development during this era.

© stef