Manhattan Tango
Label Usine 1008

Boxholder BXH 045

Different instruments are featured — including a drum set on the trio session — but the two CDs here still offer up slices of chamber improv featuring Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. His presence alone is a guarantee that proceedings will be out-of-the-ordinary, although none of the other participants are particularly mainstream.

SYMPATHY’s mainman is Vermont-based trumpeter Raphe Malik, an associate of pianist Cecil Taylor and the late saxophonist Glenn Spearman. Bay area drummer Donald Robinson — who also played with Spearman, as well as bassist Lisle Ellis and saxophonist Larry Ochs — is the third partner.

Recorded in the Apple, MANHATTAN TANGO features McPhee, limiting himself to pocket trumpet, plus Jérôme Bourdellon on a variety of flutes. Active in left-wing politics, Nancy, France-resident Bourdellon also plays with vibraharpist Alex Grillo and the large Philharmonie du Bon Vide.

Unfortunately his side of the musical equation isn’t as strong as McPhee’s. While McPhee, Malik and Robinson are united in their dissonance, Bourdellon’s flute is sometimes a bit too sweet and legit sounding. In fact, when the flautist expels purring grace notes on his own, he could be in the midst of a pastoral eclogue, evoking lovelorn shepherds and springtime.

That type of sound has its place, but here it suffers from its near unctuousness. Too often, as on the title tune, McPhee takes on both thematic and rhythmic function, while whistled air from the flute merely decorates the proceedings. Using single pecks, McPhee adds a brassy eruption to his solo that finally spurs gritty cross blows from the flautist. Ending his solo with tongue stops and an almost foot-tapping beat, the trumpeter allows the piece to dissolve by squeezing out unattached tones.

Elsewhere, Bourdellon’s dulcet bass flute accompaniment on other numbers similarly bends towards purring grace notes, even as the trumpeter snickers through his bell and exhibits rhythmic peeps. With McPhee’s trumpeting reminiscent of Bill Dixon’s style: stretches of pure air are mixed with clenched throat timbres, the contrast with Bourdellon’s often pretty playing can be off-putting.

Only on a couple of tunes does Bourdellon’s fripple frippery move away from delicacy and ascend to a growl. He adds a final double counterpoint to McPhee’s vocalized opera buffo cries and squealing howls, on “Pearls for Swine”. Then on “White Street, 17th”, both men take off on shrill, polyphonic broken note patterns. After the flautist’s twitters complement the trumpeter’s tongue-stopped slurs, the latter’s cushion of broken arpeggios prevents what threatens to develop into an offbeat version of “All Blues”. Casting aside melded harmony, McPhee retains the rhythmic bottom as the flautist hits discordant higher notes.

Credited with playing pocket trumpet as well as soprano saxophone on SYMPATHY, McPhee’s brass work is hard to detect. Perhaps it’s because Malik improvises in a similar dissonant fashion during the almost 75½-minutes of the CD. There is a point on “Hypersonic”, when a more hesitant brass sound is heard in contrast to a subsequent trumpet flourish. But considering McPhee then enters with a straightforward saxophone line and Malik’s trills gracefully morph into slurs and repeated note patterns, exact identification is certain.

Most of the time Malik’s solos revolve around brassy trills and soaring triplets. On pieces like “Resolving a Quote”, he aims for a hip Cat Anderson-like elevated attack without heading into screech mode — and this locks perfectly in with Robinson’s steady cymbal work and press rolls. Meanwhile McPhee responds with nasal, double-tongued split tones, more Steve Lacy than John Coltrane.

Reference can linked to Evan Parker’s style as well, when McPhee produces abstract, machine-like circular breathing at certain points. Slurred, sideslipping obbligatos present no challenge him either, but when McPhee breaks up his solos with extended techniques, they’re often played moderato, eschewing speedy histrionics.

On tunes like “Motivic” furthermore, both horns appear as two sides of a single coin, with the metallic properties of each stressed. A form of double counterpoint, the piece retains its shape as the saxist plays long solid tones and the trumpeter blurred, higher-pitched fractions.

Throughout, Robinson is the soul of restraint, moving seamlessly from gentle triplets to bell-ringing play-by-plays and open-handed strokes that could as easily come from a bata or other African drum.

The cooperation comes to fruition on “Escape Route”, the final and longest track. Malik builds his solo out of ascending grace notes, Robinson subdivides the rhythm into bounces, flams and cymbal sticking, while McPhee bends his notes into prolonged curlicues. When he breaks up the reed line into irregularly vibrated partials, Malik expels a lightly muted obbligato behind him, while the drummer follows a third tempo that easily intersects with the other two. Polyphonically the three are like musical fraternal triplets, following each other around, while melding with one another’s lines to make a whole.

Confirmation that in the right circumstances, with a similar understanding of melody and time lines, geographic separation means little, the trio CD should impress those who know all three musicians. Properly challenged Malik turns out some of his most advanced playing since his days working alongside Spearman, as does Robinson.

McPhee confirms his versatility on both discs. As for Bourdellon, technically there are no complaints. Perhaps in circumstances with more instruments present than just one other horn, he would abstain from playing pretty. It will be instructive to hear his next outing.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Tango: 1. Business Hour 2. Pearls for Swine 3. White Street, 17th 4. a.k.a.l.h. 5. In the Noiseless Loft 6. Come Back Ella 7. Mystery “J” 8. Manhattan Tango

Personnel: Tango: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet and voice); Jérôme Bourdellon (piccolo, C and bass flutes)

Track Listing: Sympathy: 1. Testament 2. Resolving A Quote 3. Velocity 4. Space March 5. Hypersonic 6. Motivic 7. Untitled Dialogue 8. Call and Response 9. Escape Route

Personnel: Sympathy: Raphe Malik (Bb and C trumpets); Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet and soprano saxophone); Donald Robinson (drums)