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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Joe McPhee - Sonic Elements (For Pocket Trumpet and Alto Saxophone) (Clean Feed, 2013) *****

By Janus and Karl

Being Joe McPhee must be wonderful because with his music he has the ability to touch the most delicate strings of your heart. In 2011 he opened the third day of the Chicago Tentet+1 residence to celebrate Peter Brötzmann’s 70th birthday at Café Ada in his hometown Wuppertal with a dedication to the late Billy Bang. It was a blues meditation on soprano sax which almost drove the audience to tears.

But being Joe McPhee must be hard work as well. When you’ve still been blowing miracles out of your lungs every day for forty years (and being among a fistful of unbreakable free jazz veterans), when you’ve been constantly promoting the logical evolution of your lifetime’s musical paths as much as you’ve been getting involved in a countless number of embodiments in the musical scenario without boundaries, there must have been some kind of strange and strong fluid running through your veins. One day you’re on stage guiding the transcendent guitar feedbacks of some rock outsider, the other day you team up with some polyhydric noise creator, or you are just spending a two-day-residence-gig melting in the glorious “dirty Chicago Tentet” at Café Oto driven by one of your old comrades. No time to mess around!

So what happens when you are alone with your horns and brasses again? When your sound is so unveiled after so much time and so many experiments? Well, see above.

McPhee is in no hurry, he takes all the time he needs to warm up his instrument like a kid getting confident with his new toy (he!). On his new album “Sonic Elements” the dedication of “Episode One” to Don Cherry is rather to be intended as a homage to a trailblazer in the use of the pocket trumpet as improvising instrument than a reference to the grand old trumpeter. McPhee silently inflates the pipes, enjoying every single rasp coming from his breath coalescing in shrieking clusters, slap-tonguing on the mouthpiece, clawing the metal and murmuring. The evolved phrases of his musical speech coming after this long intense prelude seems to come from a sort of second adult self replacing the former embryonic one.

Following this imaginary path of growth doesn’t surprise the use of the voice filtered through the instrument, as a new step of evolution and conscience. If the artist already faced two of the four classical elements (“Air” in the first minutes of this sonic journey and “Earth” through the human voice) the closing minutes are plunged in the “Water”. The musical fluid flows along the piston valves, the “Air” pulls back among the dropping sizzle of the overstuffed pipes. McPhee preserves the clash of “Earth” and “Fire” for his beloved blues and alto sax and dedicates “Episode Two” to Ornette Coleman – and what a majestic and outstanding blues manifesto it is indeed! But not necessarily in the case of Coleman’s Texas blues feeling (or his harmolodics), even if the track starts like it. McPhee triggers off light-footed lines displaying his incredible musicianship on the instrument (but there is definitely no showing off) before he turns to a Steve-Reich-like minimalism, to repetitive phrases, and hoarse croaking. He even produces rock phrases in this wild, yet elegant mix before he intersperses pointed trills, wild runs, and desperate cries only to return to minimalist phrases again. The cement that holds everything together is his down-to-earth Mississippi blues sound, these beautiful dark lines which are so fragile that they seem to be torn apart, in its foot-dragging this music is of the utmost beauty and melancholy.

The album was recorded at Cankarjew Dom, a concert hall in Ljubljana/Slovenia in 2012. It is one of the most fabulous recent solo recordings and we highly recommend it, because being Joe McPhee is most of all being pure joy for all the listeners.

Listen to Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet here:

and on alto saxophone here:

The album can be bought from