July 22, 2000
Atavistic/Unheard Music Series UMS/ALP 205 CD
This reissued CD is going to shock a lot of people who think they know all about Joe McPhee.
It turns out that the cerebral composer and multi-instrumentalist, best known for exemplary, European-inflected chamber-jazz excursions in the 1980s and 1990s, had a completely different earlier history.
NATION TIME, recorded in 1971, reveals McPhee's talents as a Black nationalist-rooted souljazzer whose compositions were as embedded in the cadences of electric pianos and electric basses, as the mature McPhee revels in pure improv. Exposing the saxophonist/trumpeter's inner Shaft doesn't diminish him as a musician, however. As a matter of fact, this session fits right in with what was the mainstream of roots-jazz at that time. Like Panasonic, it may even have been slightly ahead of its time.
Take "Scorpio's Dance," for instance, with its then-fashionable astrological title. A group composition, it meanders from ruminative trumpet and bowed bass to out-and-out tenor saxophone and drum blow outs, mirroring the sort of lightening quick compositional changes in which the McPhee of today revels.
Other tracks are more of their time. "Nation Time," for example, with its shouted call-and-response demand for a separate black nation, seems to be as influenced by James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and Proud)" as the McPhee of the 1980s was by clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre. Percussion-driven and colored by electric piano washes and electric bass slides, its simple repetitive riff was part of the common musical gestalt of the time, which culminated in ur-fusion efforts like Herbie Hancock's HEADHUNTERS. Still, the gritty skill McPhee exhibited in his barnstorming tenor breaks is a lot more accomplished than the wispy sax baths that would characterize jazz-rock by the middle of the decade.
"Shakey Jake", augmented by three extra musicians is even simpler. A free form, all out funk workout, it could slip into any one of today's so-called Acid Jazz samplers without altering a bar. Even here, though, the saxophonist doesn't let the cascading blues guitar riffs or constant backbeat drumming cheapen his solo excursions.
This CD may pinpoint the only time McPhee could be confused with Superfly. But, all things considered, it's still a memorable session. And it's certainly something that deserves to be heard.
Track Listing: 1. Nation Time 2. Shakey Jake* 3. Scorpio Dance
Personnel: Joe McPhee (tenor saxophone and trumpet); Mike Kull (piano and electric piano); Tyrone Crabb (bass, electric bass, trumpet); Bruce Thompson and Ernest Bostic (percussion) plus [on *] Otis Greene (alto saxophone); Dave Jones (electric guitar) and Herbie Lehman (organ)