September 3, 2001
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1134
Accurately named, this cooperative group shouldn't be thought of as Joe McPhee's trio. For the contributions of bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen — the Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones of American new jazz — are as important to the success of this CD as the work of multi-instrumentalist McPhee.
Recorded live, mostly in Toronto, this nearly 74-minute session shows how the three can transfix audiences by working together to recast what's usually thought of as familiar material in such a way that so-called standards are made new. Plus, at the same time, the original tunes they perform contain enough interlocking compositional edges so that they're easily attached to a musical whole.
The most affecting piece is "Trail of Tears", an almost 22 minute threnody for American Indian saxophonist Jim Pepper (1941-1992) best known for his composition "Witchi-Tai-To". Fittingly, there's no attempt to replicate any of the aboriginal rhythms that enlivened that tune. In fact, the only recognizable line that's introduced at different times, is Stephen Sondheim's bittersweet "Send in the Clowns".
Relating to the jazz and Tin Pan Alley tunes that proceed "Trail", the point is made that every song can be a standard and in the right hands Sondheim's melody is no less legitimate than the Thelonious Monk piece which begins this recital and vice versa.
Meanwhile, in this performance, McPhee's tenor saxophone seems to be going through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's many states of grief. At first playing quietly and understated like the sniffles of a weeping widow, he's soon biting the reed and heading into altissimo territory, keening like a wailing lover at a public burial ceremony. After literally screaming linked notes through his horn with the sort of intense glossolalia you would expect from an out-of control-mourner, he turns to Sonny Rollins-like swoops that uses "Send"'s distinct melancholic line to signal calm and acceptance.
As all this is going on, Duval has been alternately speeding up and slowing down the beat, constructing a solo out of powerful basso thumps, and generally supplying the combination solo and accompaniment you'd expect from two basses. His screeching arco interlude, heightening McPhee last statement of the Sondheim theme, suggests defiance rather than capitulation. Similarly, Rosen chimes in using cymbal smashes, repeated snare patterns and even a triangle accent to second either the saxophonist or the bassist.
"Try A Little Tenderness" is tweaked in the same sort of way, but the performance suggests that the trio was thinking of Otis Redding's frenzied version rather than Frank Sinatra's more restrained one. Beginning with a tough bass solo extracted from the instruments bowls and extended with echoing electronics, muted percussion response appear long before the familiar melody asserts itself. Throughout Duval's and Rosen's respective pile driver strums and military-style tattoos succeed in kicking away any sentimentality the ballad still possess when played in McPhee's slurred mid range tenor tone.
An introduction of paradiddles, rolls, wood clicks, bass drum whumps and cowbell hits from Rosen that are answered by screams and whistles from the crowd announce that "My Funny Valentine" isn't going to be coddled either. As Duval's fingers work their way from the north to the south and back again on the bass, McPhee begins a saxophone solo that gradually turns into the well-known theme. If the drummer's percussion bombs later upset the equilibrium, then the reedman's pocket trumpet allows him to caress the theme as tenderly as if it was played by Miles Davis.
A non-musical complaint: CJR rightly concerns itself with the music above all else, leaving packaging a bare bones affair. But bare bones shouldn't mean neglecting important information. On the CD McPhee is noted as playing "sax". Actually he uses his tenor saxophone throughout, as well as taking forays on pocket trumpet on two of the five tracks.
Originality, versatility and effortless musicianship add up to produce the entity that's dubbed Trio X. But the three do so much on the session, maybe the band should be renamed Trio X, Y & Z.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Monkin' Around 2. Try A Little Tenderness 3. My Funny Valentine 4. Trail of Tears 5. Old Eyes
Personnel: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, tenor saxophone); Dominic Duval (bass); Jay Rosen (drums)