By Paul Acquaro and Tom Burris
(DISCS 1 – 3) - Paul
The candy box set from Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love is shiny. Really shiny. Maybe that's why I bought it. At the store, I just couldn't keep my gaze away from its brilliance, just as much as I couldn't resist the promise of 7 CDs of collaboration between these two giants of improvisational music. I assume that if you saw it too, aglow on the shelf, you'd feel the same. Note, I would not even consider a download version of the music, I insist, it's the box, with the glossy booklet with interviews to provide context (though the music needs no context) that you need.
But, just to give it a little context anyway ... in both interviews, one with McPhee on PNL and the other with PNL on McPhee, you really get the sense of these musicians mutual appreciation and respect for each other, which, to my ears, provides the foundation for their music.
Says McPhee of PNL:
"I find Paal to be a teacher, " says McPhee, 75, of PNL, 40, "I've learned much from him and in our conversations we find various paths that we can explore. I don't think we ever discussed what we were going to do, or how were going to do it. We just engage and find a way. It is always very organic. "Says PNL of McPhee:
"Like I said: he's completely free. He feels free to do whatever he wants. He is his own music. He is explicit, he is serious and he has fun. Joe is the perfect example of how young a musician or person in his 70s can be. He's still challenging himself and investigating new paths in music."Now, to be fair, like many a box set, you may get a little of what you already have. In this case it is the inclusion of two releases of their duo work Tomorrow Came Today (Smalltown Superjazz, 2008) and Red Sky Revisited (PNL records, 2013). However, it completes the chronology that takes the renowned Norwegian percussionist and revered American brass/woodwind player from their fiery incarnation to 2014's performance at Okkafest in Milwaukee. What a great ride it is!
Disc 1, begins with their first collaboration at the Molde Festival in 2007. It begins on the periphery - a push of air and a rattle of sticks on the rim of a floor tom. Eventually the music grows more defined as McPhee's hearty sax and PNL s propulsive drumming mesh in syncopated understanding. Track 2 may be the standout - it begins with slurs and blurs from McPhee who vocalizes faintly along with pinched tones from his saxophone. Playing off the multi-phonics, PNL responds with unusual percussive techniques leading to a long solo passage. As the tune progresses and McPhee's lines become charged and PNL's percussion heated, yet there is always a sense of space. What's striking is that throughout the tracks, the collaboration was one of complete respect from the start, both musicians have equal - and influential - say in the progress of the music.
I'm going to let the Free Jazz Blog archives fill in the gaps of Discs 2 and 3, the re-releases. Stef writes in detail about the duo's first record Tomorrow Came Today and Colin eloquently describes Red Sky Revisited. As Stef wrote about McPhee, "his music is universal and authentic, in a deep emotional and spiritual sense, open to any influence while still remaining uncompromising in its exploratory nature. He brings a purity of approach while combining sensitivity and warmth, with powerful violent outbursts and musical adventure."
In 2012, it seems that McPhee and PNL were in Antiquity mode. Antiquity was a record from the mid-70s by Jackie McLean (reeds) and Michael Carvin (percussion) that was free and airy – even when it roared – and was particularly heavy on The Groove, whether the musicians were playing in time or not. I hear its echoes all over discs 4 & 5, which were recorded in Milwaukee and Chicago respectively in 2012. The Milwaukee gig opens tentatively but soon embraces extra fire, extra melody, extra groove, extra freedom. Antiquity on steroids. The performance concludes with a piece that sounds like it was written for a ritualistic ceremony scene for a Fellini film. The Chicago disc continues in McLean/Carvin mode, while occasionally blowing it up, but not as often as before. There is more balance to this performance. At times it even seems infinitely spacious and quiet. When McPhee and PNL join forces as one indestructible mountain on the final track it is positively stunning. One question: How does Paal Nilssen-Love make caveman oom-pah brush work sound sophisticated? I don't think it's merely context.
Disc 6 was recorded in Japan in 2013 and begins frantically with fast and furious brush work from PNL and spirit possession from McPhee. PNL scrapes and clangs cymbals, drags 'em scraping and squealing across the tom heads, and bangs what sounds like a really expensive saucepan. McPhee calls free reveille on trumpet. Someone's phone goes off in the middle of it and suddenly the recording stops. When it cuts back in, the duo is going full throttle. The tape cut somehow makes it more exciting. The gig closes with McPhee playing very melodically and freely while PNL plays with delicacy and complete freedom.
This box concludes with a performance from Milwaukee in 2014. Joe (on trumpet) and Paal each open with solos. When they combine energies on track 3, it becomes a natural telepathic dance between melodic shuffle and free flipout. McPhee informs the audience that June 21, 2014 – the day this was recorded – is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. (Freedom Summer refers to a time in the 1960s when young activists traveled from the northern U.S. to Alabama to register African-Americans to vote. James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were three activists who were murdered by a Klansman.) “I don't want to get too political,” he says. “But let's keep that fucking in mind!” Then comes the roar. It's white hot. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. McPhee begins to play “Nation Time.” He squeals, sings and yells into the sax, and PNL covers his back with jaw-dropping precision and muscle as they take the famous protest anthem into the stratosphere. When they finally come back to earth, McPhee plays a slow, melodic, understated solo that is built around Coltrane's “Alabama.” It's beyond beautiful, beyond sadness, beyond words. Beyond. Anything I would say about it wouldn't do it justice. I'll say this though: this last disc alone is worth the price of the whole box.