Voices and Dreams
EMOUVANCE émv 1016

Rules of Engagement, Vol. 2
Drimala DR 04-347-05

Although it would seem that these two duo discs by multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and a single string player couldn’t be more different, a thread of lyrical romanticism runs through both of them.

Recorded in mid-2000, VOICES AND DREAMS is the result of live concert performances in Lyon and Marseilles, France by McPhee on alto and tenor saxophones and pocket trumpet and French guitarist Raymond Boni. Nearly four years later, McPhee took his soprano saxophone to a recording studio in upstate New York with longtime bass partner Dominic Duval for RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.

In truth, while lyricism is as prevalent on the second disc as the first, perhaps romanticism is the wrong term, maybe impressionism would be better. For as McPhee verbally articulates, the most moving – and longest – track of the CD, “Birmingham Sunday”, is his heartfelt threnody for the four young girls who were killed in the racist inspired church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963. (John Coltrane’s “Alabama” dealt with the same subject).

In that way, the entire middle section of the CD should be heard as a suite, with “Sunday Improvisations 1” and “Sunday Coda” as the prelude to “Birmingham Sunday” and “Sunday Improvisations 2” and “Amazing Grace” serving as the postlude. Conventionally sylvan, the Hollywood ballad “While My Lady Sleeps”— also recorded by Coltrane – may or may not serve as the coda to the suite.

Utilizing melancholia naturally expressed with the soprano’s pinched tone, McPhee begins his improvisations on “Birmingham Sunday” placidly and restrained. With Duvall bowing legato lines beneath him, the saxophonist trills careful, wavering split tones, then becomes more tender in his output, as the bassist’s strokes become legato. Expanding on the theme by introducing melodies that could come from half-remembered classic films, suddenly McPhee vibrates a resonating screech that could replicate the explosion that caused those deaths. With Duval holding firm with a constant rhythm, the reedist blows multiphonics in such a way as to almost expose the inside of his horn until the elegy ends.

Chirping tones, sluices up and down the scale, gentle, wavering lines and squeaking chirps from the saxophone distinguish the ancillary tracks which surround “Birmingham Sunday”, although there is nearly no deviation from the melody in the barely three-minute version of “Amazing Grace”.

Sympathetic as always, Duval centres the improvisations, moving from bumping resonation and stentorian plucks to amplified squeaks and sliced timbres, all of which complements McPhee’s oscillating, sporadically abstract lines.

If “While My Lady Sleeps” isn’t part of the suite, it can be heard as an elegy for Coltrane without McPhee imitating any of the master’s style. His echoing cadenzas are part of a languid reworking of the melody, almost vibrato-less, at points his sound barely rises above a whisper.

The rest of the CD, only available from, provides other examples of the two men’s art, in duo and solo on the final tracks. At points McPhee builds up to manic flutter tonguing or resonates staggering loops that almost take on bagpipe timbres. Spectacularly Duval shows off a percussive counterline on much of the proceedings, adding spiccato slashes and instrument belly bops as well as slashing sul tasto and sul ponticello circular motion.

Should you want to hear spectacular extended techniques however, then listen to what Boni does with his electric guitar on VOICES AND DREAMS. The guitarist, who has written for film, dance, stage pieces and fairy tales, and who mixes gypsy and Balkan influences along with his unique phraseology, often plays with French baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro and French bassist Claude Tchamitchian. Between slurred fingering, reverb and amplifier distortion, he not only brings out the fingerpicking characteristics of his strings, but also their percussive and even arco [!] qualities.

Here the “Dream” sections provide ample space for McPhee’s experimentation with alto saxophone and pocket trumpet. But it’s the three prolonged “Voices” tracks that emphasize the reedist’s romanticism expressed through his breathy tenor saxophone. Tours de force are “Voices II” and “Voices III”, both recorded in Marseilles.

The former begins with what appears to be Boni bowing [!] additional reverberations from his strings as McPhee introduces the moderato theme. As the tenor sound augments, the guitarist sweeps downwards through the quadrants with picks and rambling runs. All this turns out to be a prelude to McPhee slurring out portentous tones through pitchsliding and slow distortions. Boni follows with curvaceous arpeggio-like fills and distorted flamenco-like runs, descending to abrasive loops and below-the-bridge scratches. Eventually his tangy interjects sway the saxophonist away from overt sweetness and into a finale of blown colored air.

More of the same, the latter finds Boni’s tense, wobbling reverb turning to piles of arpeggios and echoing runs that effectively link with McPhee’s vibrating sax timbres that echo masculine melancholy. Very quickly the two are improvising in tandem, as if they’re creating the music for a Film Noir set in a deserted waterfront. McPhee’s throaty insouciance is such that there are portions of his solo that recall Gato Barbieri in his Ur-romantic phrase around “Last Tango in Paris”.

Of course this reedist’s style is more minimalist than that and here and elsewhere he has the aid of a plectrum sidekick ready to interrupt his flow of languid notes with agitated surf music-like runs and cadenzas of broken chords.

Elsewhere, Boni judiciously uses splayed reverb, repetitive lopping effects and flat-picking percussive string movements to advance the agenda, bolstering the saxman’s employment of keening whines, pregnant pauses and squeaking single-note distortion to personalize his solos.

Flanges and vibrating partials make it sound as if Boni is shifting unselected cymbals rather than strings, and further polyphonic interaction with McPhee’s alto saxophone leads the latter to throat-tightening, piglet-like whistles. It’s the guitarist’s chromatic runs that whistle when McPhee turns to pocket trumpet. Copying or mocking him, the brassman first morphs his ghostly echoing tones to an evisceration of half-valve effects, builds up to a climax of distorted mouthpiece kisses and wiggling breaths, then dissolves his solo by sucking out discordant tones.

Impressionism, romanticism and extended techniques – what more could a committed listener want from two well-matched duos?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Rules: 1. Nexus 2. Sunday Improvisations 1 3. Sunday Coda 4. Birmingham Sunday 5. Monologue 6. Sunday Improvisations 2 7. Amazing Grace 8. While My Lady Sleeps 9. Coming Forth 10. Solo Sax 11. Solo Bass

Personnel: Rules: Joe McPhee (soprano saxophone); Dominic Duval (bass)

Track Listing: Voices: 1. Voice I 2. Dream I 3. Voice II 4. Dream II 5. Voice III 6. Dream III 7. Voice IV

Personnel: Voices: Joe McPhee (alto and tenor saxophones, pocket trumpet); Raymond Boni (guitar)