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Monday, February 14, 2022

Joe McPhee (part I)

Today is valentine's day, an appropriate day to put horn-player Joe McPhee in the picture. Not only because he is - at 81 -  still as prolific as ever, but also because "My Funny Valentine" was one of the standards that he made his own over the years. Different versions can be found on the following albums: "My Funny Valentine" (on "The Watermelon Suite" (1999) "Trio X: On Tour" (2001), "Nation Time: The Complete Recordings" (2013), and its adaptation in combination with "War" by Edwin Star called "A Valentine In The Fog Of War" (on : "Moods: Playing With The Elements" (2005), "Air: Above & Beyond (2007), "2006 U.S. Tour" (2008), "Live In Vilnius" (2008)). Occasionally, he also introduced the song's main theme in other improvisations. 

Over the last year, we already reviewed the following albums: 

And we did not review all his output. Today and the following days, we're giving you an update. 

... but let's start with the beginning, and that means literally back to the early days of his career as a leader ...

By Stef Gijssels

Joe McPhee - Black Is the Color (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2021)

Credit to Corbett & Dempsey to release some unpublished performances dating from the time of Joe McPhee's hard to find "Underground Railroad" debut album from 1969. The performances were given in Poughkeepsie - still the place where McPhee resides - and New Windsor, both in New York state. 

The first disc brings the ensemble of McPhee on horns, Tyrone Crabb on bass, Ernest Bostic on vibes and Bruce Thompson on drums. 

The sound quality is relatively good, and so is the music. It does not yet have the subtlety and deep soul of Trio X, yet it offers a wonderful view of McPhee's early free jazz, demonstrating his tributes to Coltrane with "Afro Blue" and "Naima", to Billie Holiday with his almost personal standard "God Bless The Child".  

The second disc offers two performances. The first with the band of McPhee on trumpet and saxes, Reggie Marks on sax and flute, Tyrone Crabb on bass, and Bruce Thompson on drums. The sound quality is less good, and the playing somewhat rougher, especially the drumming by Thompson can be brutal. 

The last three tracks are performed by McPhee on horns, Tyrone Crabb on electric bass, Chico Hawkins on drums, Mike Kull on piano and Octavius Graham on vocals. These give a different kind of angle to the music, moving away from free jazz, with the boppish "I Don't Want Nobody", the funky "Funky Broadway" and the bluesy "Blues For The People". Even if the nature of the music is more mainstream, it's fun to hear McPhee navigate the structures on trumpet and sax. 

Is this essential? Probably not, but fans of McPhee will appreciate this music, also to bookend the evolution of his playing. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Joe McPhee - Route 84 Quarantine Blues (Corbett vs Dempsey, 2021)

Quaratine rules also impacted Joe McPhee, which resulted in this solo album, one that is easy to recommend to fans of the horn player. This his thirteenth solo album, the result of output delivered over the period of 55 years. The other solo albums "Tenor" (1977), "Graphics" (1978), "Variations On A Blue Line" (1979), "As Serious As Your Life" (1998), "Everything Happens For A Reason" (2005), "Soprano" (2007), "Alto" (2009), "Sonic Elements" (2013), "Solos: The Lost Tapes" (2015), "Flowers" (2016), "Zürich (1979)" (2016), "Seattle Symphony" (2017). 

The album offers music that spans from the overdubbed soulful and bluesy title song to the more avant-garde timbral extended technique and the ambient sound of water dripping in "Tzedek, Tzedek (For RBG)", dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the US Supreme Court judge and human rights advocate who passed away last year. 

The opening track is a variation on Carla Bley's 'Ida Lupino', and he gives his own intimate rendition of Mingus's "Pork Pie Hat", with the lyrics that Joni Mitchell added to her take of the composition. 

He even presents us with a "Self Portrait In Three Colors", that starts with the words of T'Chaka Black Panther in the Marvel movie: "You are a good man, with a good heart. And it is hard for a good man to be king". By coincidence, this movie was released on Valentine's day four years ago. 

This is an album by a musician who has the absolute comfort of his career to do whatever he wants, and the result is great: intimate, personal, humanistic, ... with nothing left to prove, either musically or personally. 

It's unassuming and authentic, offering his soul on a platter. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Joe McPhee, Jen Clare Paulson, Brian Labycz – The Mystery J (Corbett vs Dempsey, 2021)

"The Mystery J" offers a completely different picture of the artist, here in the company of Jen Clare Paulson on viola and Brian Labycz on electronics. This is the label's first LP, and only available in 500 copies. 

Jen Clare Paulson has been a very active member of Kyle Bruckman's ensembles of the years, as well as being a member of various avant-garde ensembles, including Ken Vandermark's Audio One. Brian Labycz is a sound artist, also from Chicago, who has performed with musicians such as Jason Roebke, and who also set up the Peira label. 

The music is unlike any of the albums reviewed above, much more avant-garde, and even if I am not a fan of electronics, Labycz uses them wisely and with taste, collaborating to create a common sound (in truth, I find electronics often go against the acoustic instruments, instead of working with them). Labycz is good. Paulson is also not intimidated by the presence of the jazz luminary. 

The music has a slowly evolving linear shape, allowing McPhee's trumpet to share its deeply melancholy sound (on "Joy"!) before the trio moves into a more parlando style intimate conversation, with McPhee on alto (on "Justice"), on which he allows Paulson to shape the scene, then adding his inimitable sensitive alto in full harmony. The intimacy is maintained on the second side, first on "Jupiter", then on "Josiah", and against the avant-garde and often unfamiliar sounds of Labycz's electronics, McPhee weaves the most sensitive sounds imaginable, as well as ferocious outbursts to contrast his own sound. 

The titles of the four track all start with "J" and the album's title refers to the "Mystery J", the boat McPhee's father worked on (McPhee was born in Florida). 

I enjoyed myself by trying to find back pictures of the ship (found in the The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Florida) Fri, Jan 5, 1923). The caption of the bottom right picture reads: "The aptly named smuggler Mystery J is shown here as she arrived from the Bahamas with her cargo of booze for thirsty New York. The Mystery J is one of the best known crafts "in the trade" and up to the present has been a phantom ship so far as prohibition agents are concerned". 

This is definitely a hard to find vinyl, and I am not sure whether it will ever be made available digitally or on CD. I find it one of his best of last year, if only because of the new context, the more abstract environment in which the master adapts, reinvents himself to a degree without compromising on his incredible emotional power. 

... more in the next days ... 


Kruse said...

Love your reviews, always very well written and I seem to have music tastes quite similar to yours.
Just one small question: Monk's Pork Pie Hat?: Wasn't this a Mingus composition?
Keep up the nice work

Colin Green said...

That’s correct. Mingus wrote it as a tribute to Lester Young, whose pork pie hat was a trademark, and as reflected in the opening line of Mitchell’s lyric: “When Charlie speaks of Lester”.

Stef said...

Thanks Kruse, you're absolutely right ... I went too fast on the Pork Pie Hat reference. I will rectify right away.