Friday, August 23, 2019

Susan Alcorn, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark - Invitation To A Dream (Astral Spirits, 2019) *****

Clouded reflections
Broken dreams
Nightmare creatures
(First verse of Joe McPhee’s poem “Less Than Zero”)

Some matches are made in heaven and can be brought to a studio in Austin, Texas. Baltimore-based pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, Poughkeepsie-based sax and pocket trumpet player Joe McPhee, and Chicagoan reeds player Ken Vandermark player is, no doubt, one of these rare matches.

Alcorn and McPhee performed for the first time at the 2016 edition of the Cropped Out Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. A year later, both were invited by Ingebrigt HÃ¥ker Flaten (who has collaborated many times before with McPhee, with The thing and in duo performances and recordings) to his Austin’s Sonic Transmission festival, but this time with Vandermark. McPhee and Vandermark have been collaborating together for more than twenty years now, since they recorded their first album together, A Meeting in Chicago (Okka Disk, 1998, with Kent Kessler) in February 1996, and most recently with the release of the box-set of the DKV trio with McPhee, The Fire Each Time (Not Two, 2019). The recording of Invitation To A Dream, which took place in September 2017, was the first time that Alcorn, McPhee and Vandermark played together as trio.

McPhee’s decision to bring to the recording session the soprano sax, instead of the often-used tenor sax, in addition to his pocket trumpet, set the chamber, poetic atmosphere of Invitation To A Dream. Vandermark left out his baritone sax and focused on the tenor sax and clarinet. Alcorn, McPhee and Vandermark created instantly a strong and coherent sound, dynamic, and identity for this trio. You can feel this kind of disarming magic already on opening, title-piece, the first piece that the trio played, with no warm up improvisations, no false starts, just the most profound, spiritual music.
You sense immediately that the trio hardly had to rely on rhythmic patterns at all and opted for reserved, abstract dynamics and not for dramatic, energetic ones (except on the short “Rise and Rise”). These kind of European, abstract, free-associative improvisations are based on deep listening and openly emotional and imaginative sculpting and shaping of sounds. Often, the conversational-contemplative interplay extends and expands on fleeting themes and ideas but refuses again and again to attach itself to any of them. It may sound like a recipe for a chaotic, off-balanced structural turmoil, but Alcorn, McPhee and Vandermark are experienced enough to allow this unpredictable tension and architecture feed and invigorate their music, letting these dreamy-cryptic events just happen and suggest their own inner logic and reasoning. The longer pieces as “Bing Says Ming” and “The Eyes of Memory” captures best the trio essence (and even their titles make perfect sense while listening to them).

How could this happen
What does it mean
Empty echoes
(Second verse of McPhee’s poem that accompanies this album)

One of the best albums of 2019, and happened to be the 100th release of the independent Astral Spirits label. You should get your own copy of the limited-edition vinyl with artwork by Bill Nace.

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