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Monday, October 8, 2007

Joe McPhee's Survival Unit III - Don't Postpone Joy (Rai Trade, 2007) ****

In 1971, Joe McPhee released Trinity, the first album with his Survival Unit II, with a bass-less trio, later to be followed by "N.Y.N.Y. 1971", released by HatHut in 2006. Now, a year later, McPhee brings us his Survival Unit III, with Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and Michael Zerang on percussion. The set-list is not unfamiliar : "Variations on Harriett", "Variations on Nation Time", come from his first records "Underground Railroad" and "Nation Time", and already figured on the HatHut 2006 release. "Variations on Remembrance" was originally on the 2005 Cadence CD. "Feather Exchange" is a composition by Lonberg-Holm.

But all that is fairly meaningless, considering the fact that "Don't Postpone Joy" was recorded live in Firenze, Italy in 2005, and is a recording in its own right, with totally different musicians. I listened to the 1971 recording earlier today, and was amazed first of all at how great it all sounded, but secondly, how close to Coltrane and Ayler it still was too. This performance of three decades later just shows what the relevance of McPhee himself has been on musical expression. The basis is still there : deeply emotional and expressive music, raw and creative. McPhee has always been a sentimentalist at heart, and his sweet melodies always shine through the chaos and the intense anxiety that's also part of his music. But those basic feelings have been stripped of the grammar of that period, purified, intensified, stripped of all the conventions, yet without falling into the nihilism of much of free improv. This is not deconstructing anymore, but constructing, creating new sounds and sound combinations and a musical experience that is at moments truly stunning.

Out of the first 7 or 8 screeching minutes of Nation Time arises a gentle, velvety softness in the slow bluesy playing of drums, cello and pocket trumpet, which would have been beautiful as a stand-alone piece, but integrated and in contrast with what went before, the listening experience is only more intense and satisfying, especially because it breaks down again in loose pointillistic sounds. And sounds they can produce, with McPhee shouting through his sax, Lonberg-Holm producing effects close to the human voice on his cello, but not just for the sake of doing weird stuff, it fits within the overall context. On "Remembrance", an hypnotic rhythm is taken up by drums and cello, for McPhee to blow again slowly and with deep feeling, propulsed forward by Zerang's great drumming and leaving room for the cello to interact with the sax, first gently, then powerfully, moving the whole piece into an incredible frenzy, and back again to a more subdued atmosphere, moods come and go, contrasts abound, experiences flow. The real musical highlight of the album is Lonberg-Holm's "Feather Exchange", which starts with a great drums intro by Zerang, some pizzi cello, then whailing arco, and when McPhee joins on sax, the whole thing has become a form of contained tension ready to explode, but then it evolves into a very sad, moving piece. A great album by three magnificent musicians.