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Sunday, November 8, 2015

Joe McPhee/Jamie Saft/Joe Morris/Charles Downs – Ticonderoga (Clean Feed, 2015) ****

By Martin Schray

In the liner notes to this album Joe Morris tells us that in a conversation he and Jamie Saft found out that they both have a mutual admiration for Live at the Village Vanguard Again (Impulse, 1966), John Coltrane’s controversial recording with his “new thing” quintet consisting of Pharoah Sanders (ts, fl), Alice Coltrane (p), Jimmy Garrison (b) and Rashied Ali (dr), then augmented by Emanuel Rahim on percussion. This might be surprising since there are a lot of people who consider this album as one of Coltrane’s weaker recordings, on the one hand due to the poor sound (Alice Coltrane is rather in the background and Jimmy Garrison’s bass can hardly be heard when the full band is playing), on the other hand due to Pharaoh Sanders’ contributions, which were sometimes reviewed in a critical way.

However, Saft has been a deep admirer of Alice Coltrane and he has always wanted to make an album which is inspired by that recording. When Morris learned about that, he was immediately enthusiastic. The question only was who to invite for their plan.

Morris suggested Charles Downs (a.k.a. Rashid Bakr) and Joe McPhee, who told them that he was in the front row of the audience at the Village Vanguard the night the Coltrane set was recorded. Finally, they met in Saft’s studio in the Catskill Mountains, close to a place called Ticonderoga, which means “the junction of two waterways”, a perfect name for this project. It is easy to guess why: Two approaches meet (Saft/Morris vs. McPhee/Downs) to honor the music of the great pioneers of that time, combining it with what has happened in almost 50 years of improvised music since Live at the Village Vanguard Again was released.

The result is exhilarating beauty. The four tracks take up the improvisational spirit of that time, mainly McPhee seems to move to and fro between Pharoah Sanders’s screaming, intense sound and his iconoclastic impetus (e.g. on his soprano solo in “Leaves of Certain“) and Coltrane’s fervent lyricism (“A Backward King“), while Saft shows his love for Alice Coltrane by adopting her harp-like cascades and meditative block chords.

That Morris can be heard on bass on this album delivering a nervously propelling pulse to the music, is a real gift, however, the best decision was to have Charles Downs on the drums. His subtle timekeeping keeps the music going, even pushes it relentlessly with its syncopated patterns and rompish polyrhythms.

Ticonderoga is a bow to the early, legendary days of free jazz, the musicianship is on a very high level. You can feel the love the quartet has for this music in every note.

Ticonderoga is available as a CD.

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