Pieces of Light
Atavistic Unheard Music Series ALP 256 CD

By Ken Waxman

An interesting, but decidedly minor work, this reissue of a 1974 LP is mostly memorable as a record of multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee’s improvisational strength even at that early date.

Unfortunately partner John Snyder, using a model 2600 ARP synthesizer shows the limitations of early electronic apparatus. This is in contrast to McPhee, who at that early date was both experimenting with and refining the techniques he uses today; and trying others he would subsequently abandon such as playing on vestigial sound sources like e-flat alto horn, modified harp and wind chimes.

Snyder went on to record other sessions with McPhee in the 1970s, continued playing the synth into the 1990, as well as after 1986 performing on didjeridoo. Now he’s involved with a live radio-audio drama group. Rudimentary and elemental, how he was manipulating the synthesizer more than 30 years ago has about as much relationship to the multi-faceted sonic processing of today’s electronic-oriented improvisers as Bunk Johnson’s trumpet playing does with Miles Davis’ style.

Twittering, jiggling and resonating, the oscillations mostly resemble the sounds of exploding fire crackers, whizzing V-8s, short wave radio tuning static or outer-space rocket re-entry scenarios. Along with bamboo chimes, harp arpeggios and aviary chirps, the height of 1960s freak-out is reached on one tune where watery robotic wheezes from the synth back McPhee improvising on a smooth, moderato series of tremolo trumpet notes. Mixed with chromatic harp resonations, McPhee’s ethereal flute playing on another tune references a duet between an erhu and a dizi. And, in a foreshadowing of Snyder’s later preoccupation with the didjeridoo, his single-note basso accompaniment often resembles the sound of that distinctive aboriginal Australian pipe.

“Colors in Crystal”, the final tour-de-force is also the most definitive track. Here as static-enhanced flutters and cyclone-strength sine waves circulate, McPhee first produces bugle-like-call-to-colors from his pocket trumpet, then double-tongued triplets from the standard trumpet. As the synthesizer creates siren-like oscillations and thunder-like rumbles, he sounds both brass horns – sometimes simultaneously – with these broken octaves producing irregular distorted pitches and resonating honks. Turning from these near-mouthpiece-swallowing feats to tenor saxophone growls and rumbles, McPhee’s reed vibrations and subsequent yowls and swallows, find the keyboardist attempting straight comping then pyrotechnic wave form explosions. Unfortunately he then downshifts to distracted pinball arcade-like thumps which are at variance with the saxophonist’s abrasive squeaks and split tones.

PIECES OF LIGHT is one CD whose chief value is as an early example of McPhee’s talents. Still, by fluke, it also illustrates how far electronic-oriented music has evolved over the past 30 years.

Track Listing: 1. Prologue/Twelve 2. Shadow Sculptures 3. Les Heroes Sont Fatigues 4. Red Giant 5. Windows in Dreams 6. Colors in Crystal

Personnel: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, trumpet, flugelhorn, e-flat alto horn , tenor saxophones, flute, modified Nagoya harp, ceramic wind chimes, bird chimes, bamboo wind chimes and voice); John Snyder (ARP synthesizer)