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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Joe McPhee - Angels, Devils & Haints (CJR, 2009) *****

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".

© stef


SH said...

I'm going to have to check this out. Thank you very much for the heads-up. (I should thank you more often -- I really do check this site on a regular basis.)

And let me know if you want to hear the ultimate Ayler-related "small world" story...

Stef said...

Thanks SH,
Please share the "small world story", curiosity is aroused ...

SH said...

Okay, here it is...

After Albert Ayler's death in 1970, his brother Don, who didn't often play with anyone else (and who had severe mental health problems of his own), nonetheless tried to put together his own band for a tour of Europe. He needed someone to play the sax, so he asked an unknown young Cleveland bebop player named Frank Doblekar to give it a try. Frank hadn't played much free jazz yet, but Don had a gut feeling he'd be able to handle the trip outside the pocket. It was a bizarre, mind-altering experience for young Frank, who'd practice with Don and the others, only to have Don stop everything to give him pointers like, "You're playing too much like Coltrane. Try to play more like my brother!" (Can you imagine trying to live up to that?)

In any case, the band went to Italy, recorded one live album there (now very much out of print and almost impossible to find -- (, but then had to come home. Don just wasn't up to it. He would never make another album, and young Frank Doblekar would never appear on any other recording, free jazz or otherwise.

Fast forward 27 years or so. I'm a huge Ayler fan, mind you, and I had recently used Ayler's death in a crime novel. (I mention several other free players like Cecil Taylor, Brotzmann, etc. Real great idea when maybe 1% of my readers have ever heard of them, but I couldn't resist.) Anyway, I meet Frank Doblekar and I hear this amazing story of his short stint with Don Ayler, and I'm totally blown away.

So where did I run into Frank Doblekar? He was my daughter's second-grade teacher.

The end.

Stef said...

Thanks! Great coincidence ... Can you give me the name of your novel? I'd love to read it.

SH said...

It's "Night Work" (by Steve Hamilton). Least I can do, after all the great recommendations, is send you a copy. Please send me your address and I'll put it in the mail. (Just click on my website link and you can send me a note right through that...)

Thanks again,


Anonymous said...

I knew both Frank Doblekar and Don Ayler. Frank was modest. He really helped Don get his musical chops together in preparation for this trip. Frank was (is?) a very talented player. Everyone was playing Coltrane in those days. Few tried to imitate Ayler both because it was not fashionable and because the few who did were not as talented as Albert and could not create the beautiful melodies that he was capable of. Don picked up some other musicians in New York--unknown players (though one was the son of somebody well known--I forget who) but skilled enough. Some Italian organized the trip and the recording but the whole experience never really helped Don or Frank, who later left town and one day called me up to tell me that he had come across Roswell Rudd playing in a dixieland bank in upstate New York! That's the last I heard from Frank who was a fine musician and person.

mazen kerbaj said...

nice review. always good to hear about joe.
do you have an idea where i can find this album on the net? and is it available as LP also?

concerning the article itself, i have some corrections:

1- this is not the first recording of joe with claude tchamitchian. there is at least one other called "next to you" published by emouvance in france in 2006 (with also daunick lazro and raymond boni).

2- there is many other double bass reunions albums. the ones i can think of now are:

– For all it is (4 basses – barry guy, barre philipps, jean-françois jenny-clarke and palle danielson, and one percussionist – stu martin) published on JAPO in the early seventies.

- for four rooms by ensemble sondarc: this is an unbelievable 6 double-bass ensemble improvising in four different places, including an empty whirlpool with huge reverbaration. i can;t tell you more. you need to listen to it.
it was published by for four ears in 97 or 98.