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Friday, August 23, 2019

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

By Keith Prosk

Invitation To A Dream is the first recorded meeting of Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar), Joe McPhee (soprano saxophone and pocket trumpet), and Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone and clarinet) as a trio. Alcorn and McPhee recorded together on the masterstroke Concentration. And McPhee and Vandermark have recorded together frequently since the late ‘90s, perhaps most famously as part of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, and just recently with this year’s The Fire Each Time. But this is the first time Alcorn and Vandermark have recorded together. The results are almost as stirring as the three names on the marquee would have you believe.

This studio session, from September 2017, occurred the same week as the trio’s first live performance. The macrostructure of these seven tracks, which span 49 minutes, appears to reflect the scouting phase of their interplay. Four longer tracks explore the possible combinations between McPhee and Vandermark: (1) tenor/trumpet; (2) clarinet/soprano; (4) tenor/soprano; (5) clarinet/trumpet. Three shorter tracks explore the possible combinations of duos: (3) Alcorn/Vandermark; (6) Alcorn/McPhee; (7) McPhee/Vandermark. And these shorter tracks rotate through McPhee and Vandermark’s instruments as well: (3) pedal steel/tenor; (6) pedal steel/soprano; (7) clarinet/trumpet. Alcorn almost acts like an anchor in most tracks, with the most play time, as if McPhee and Vandermark give more ear than mouth to better incorporate the most unfamiliar member of the trio. All of this serves to create a feeling of deliberate development in the trio’s dialect.

But the familiar styles of these musicians is here. Vandermark’s tenor staccato stops, slaps, and clicks interspersed with resonant, sonorous swells; his nimble, pastoral clarinet. McPhee’s alternately gnarled, skronky or soulful and lyrical soprano; the Cherry flurries and breathy blusters of his pocket trumpet sowed with voicings like Michelangelo’s slaves writhing in pain as they’re entombed by the gorgon. Alcorn’s tones stretched like taffy and peppered with twinkling melodies, reverbed riffs, apocalyptic arpeggios, something that sounds like a tape machine. The pacing is often relaxed, with Vandermark and McPhee giving Alcorn and each other a lot of space, resulting in what can feel less like communication with each other than contribution to the atmosphere. The experience is dreamlike or collaged. Languorous until awakened, or realizing the dream is nightmarish.

It’s a strong trio performance with strong individual performances. I imagine I’ll be drawn to return to it for quite some time. But there is a feeling that each musician has ascended higher before. There’s aspects of these musician’s characteristic energy, soul, and cerebralness that feel incomplete here. I hope they continue to perform and record together, and I look forward to a less deliberate exploration of their dynamics and a more natural channeling of their growing relationship.

Invitation To A Dream is available digitally, on CD, and on LP.