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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Plan B (Joe McPhee / James Keepnews / David Berger) - From Outer Space (Roaratorio, 2018) ****

By Nicholas Metzger

‘My friends we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty, let us reward the innocent. My friends... can your heart stand, the shocking facts, about grave robbers from outer space?’Criswell Predicts (Intro to Plan 9 from Outer Space)

I hope I’m having as much fun when I’m 78 years old as Joe McPhee seems to be having on this recording. McPhee requires no introduction; he is a genius improviser and has delivered to the ravenous masses some of the canonical works of free jazz. Plan B finds him matched up with guitarist James Keepnews and percussionist David Berger. James Keepnews (who studied guitar under Robert Fripp via his Guitar Craft program in NY) is also a proficient improviser who has worked with the likes of George Lewis, William Parker, and Hamid Drake. On this recording he is featured on guitar and laptop and serves as the catalyst through which Plan B‘s astral projection unfurls. David Berger began his career with the New Orleans based riverboat band The Flying Neutrinos and is a former member of the National Jazz Ensemble. He brings swing and forward momentum to this record and without it I don’t know that it would render as well as it does.

‘Overture’ finds McPhee starting things off with an ascending theme over Keepnews’ ambient guitar wash; they keep it short and sweet. McPhee inaugurates ‘Space Travel’ with shapes that share a lineage with the previous track as the drums and guitar whirr underneath. Towards the end of the track the guitar shifts to a more processed sound, providing varied electronic sounds that transition nicely into ‘Arrival’. Here the alien sounds take over, with Berger driving the track forward with toms and snare over which McPhee shrieks and growls. Keepnews lurks just beneath the surface with guitar swells and feedback under heavy reverb. ‘A Peaceful Resolution’ originates with Keepnews’ processed piano samples, jazzy guitar chords, and a repeated sax motif from McPhee. Berger really makes this one swing, giving it a bit of a hard bop feel with the sax and piano. ‘Plea’ finds Keepnews providing bass notes and arpeggios for McPhee to converse with. The drums rustle underneath as McPhee squeaks and vocalizes while Keepnews delivers some woozy slide guitar to wind down the A side. Plan B fills the entirety of the reverse side with the terrific ‘Shadow of the Sun Suite’ dedicated to the unprecedented Sun Ra. Right out of the gate we are met again with otherworldly sounds. The guitar has a ring modulated tone under which the rolling drums of David Berger keep pace. Here McPhee’s pocket trumpet provides a squeaking, sputtering counterpoint to Berger’s scrupulous rolls and fills. This all plays out nicely over the increasingly abstract instrumentation employed by Keepnews. Through ‘Parts 1-4’ the track progressively increases and decreases in intensity, with the drums rising and falling in waves over which McPhee alternates sax skronk with trumpet spatter. The guitar changes voicing and texture frequently and unexpectedly which shades the empty spaces with aural bramble and eccentricity, all the while maintaining a jazzy responsiveness. ‘Part 5 (Aftermath)’ begins with a solemn sax melody over heavily reverberated guitar swells and cymbal rolls. This last part is especially beautiful and melodic with soaring guitar lines and bluesy sax passages that ooze a sense of resolution and bring the album to a close.

This LP is unlike anything that I’ve heard McPhee involved with and is a tribute to his artistic elasticity and adventurous spirit. While the cliché is that people tend towards homogeneity as they age, McPhee has shown the opposite, choosing collaborations that are challenging and/or unique. This is as entertaining and enjoyable an album as I’ve heard out of the idiom in quite some time. It’s bursting with action and color, emulating the brilliant Judith Lindbloom print that adorns its cover.