Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten

Blues Chicago Blues
NotTwo MW 841-2

Decoy & Joe McPhee

Oto

Bo Weavil Recordings 041 CD

Despite a recording career which stretches back to 1968, saxophonist Joe McPhee shows no signs of slowing down, even as he reaches the age of 71. If anything newly recorded CDs such as these show that his improvisational and interpretative skills are even more advanced than in the past.

Notably enough his talents are on display here in two of Jazz’s most orthodox settings: as part of an organ combo on Oto, and on a program reflecting the conventions and sensations of the Blues, on the almost too obviously titled Blues Chicago Blues. As idiomatically American as these contexts may be, it’s probably also significant that all of his associates here are European: Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on Blues Chicago Blues, and three Londoners – Hammond organ player Alexander Hawkins, bassist John Edwards and percussionist Steve Noble – who make up Decoy, on Oto.

Recorded live at London’s Café Oto, that CD’s three extended performances flash by non-stop with such fervor and commitment for all, that even a piece such as the nearly 40-minute “Opening Might” seems to move at supersonic speeds without a boring moment. A working group on its own Decoy consists of three of the busiest and most versatile players on the U.K. Scene. Noble’s pedigree includes funky bands like Rip, Rag and Panic plus more cerebral improvising with guitarist Derek Bailey. Bassist John Edwards regularly works with everyone from saxophonist Evan Parker to the horn-heavy Remote Viewers. A former pipe-organist and pianist, keyboardist Alexander Hawkins has played with Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstadt. As busy on the continent and the United States as Edwards is in England, Blues Chicago Blues’ Ingebrigt Håker Flaten is also a member of bands Atomic and The Thing. On Oto, Hawkins’ portamento pulses, Edwards’ steady rhythms and Noble’s clip-clop strokes and cymbal patterns are showcased throughout. No matter what hard-toned runs or lightly vibrated puffs McPhee exposes, the pulsating organ texture, walking bass lines and percussion polyryhthms deal appropriately with them.

Showpiece is the lead off “Opening Might”, which moves through many sonic variations following an exposition of heavy snare and cymbal clatter, a thumping double bass line and swaggering wiggles from the organist that are closer to Sun Ra than Jimmy Smith. Once pedal-point organ riffs locks into place however, McPhee enters the fray with kinetic, sharply angled timbres from his soprano saxophone. These taut, sparkling notes unfold atop the sweep of Hawkins’ quivering note clusters until Edwards’ abrasive bowing and Noble’s paradiddles and rim shots move the piece into stop-time. McPhee’s formerly bel canto line hardens with triple tonguing and harmonic rasps concluding with tenor saxophone tongue slaps. At the same time Hawkins’ teasing of a standard Blues progression joins with the saxophonist’s multiphonics to suggest a 21st Century version of a Gene Ammons–Groove Holmes session from the 1960s.

More atonal than any tough tenor and Soul Jazz organist could have imagined 50 years ago though, Noble’s subsequent time-shifting solo on unattached cymbals and flattened metal make it seem as if a gamelan orchestra had suddenly showed up on a Funk recording session. This buzzing on roughened cymbal tops, plus bass- string swabs contrast sharply with the organ’s undulating friction. The final theme variant changes the tempo to something resembling John Coltrane’s “Olé” with McPhee fully in the lead on tenor. Ending with an output equal parts staccato reed bites from the saxophonist and drags and pops from Noble, McPhee again demonstrates his ability to simultaneously showcase traditional and advanced timbres.

This capacity is further exercised on the other CD, recorded almost exactly two years earlier. A track such as “I Love You Too Little Baby” is dissonant enough when McPhee reveals a flutter-tongued obbligato and knife-sharp intensity, but traditional enough so that Håker Flaten’s energetic slap bass suggests early specialists in this style such as Pops Foster or Wellman Braud.

While the multiphonics, pitch-alterations and mercurial pitch-sliding exhibited by both men would likely have frightened most of the early Blues singers and instrumentalists, at the same time these performers would likely have recognized the emotional content. An affecting tune such as “Requiem for an Empty Heart”, whose story-telling evolves in double counterpoint, is true Blues from the get-go. Of course whether earlier Blues bards could have created an interlude where the timbre of one string was isolated as the bassist does here; or accepted as an obbligato, the buzzed glottal stops which the saxophonist seems to produce using only his mouthpiece, is a moot point.

Overall this modernist-traditional recasting of Blues’ emotions is put into boldest relief on the fittingly titled “The Shape of Blues to Come”. Irregular cries from deep within the tenor saxophone’s body are stretched alongside bass-string sul ponticello shrieks, each more serrated and more discordant than the next. When the fiery bass lines finally match up with McPhee’s agitato, mouthpiece stuttering, ghost note chirps subside long enough to include Håker Flaten in the diminuendo.

Open to cooperation in regular or first-time meetings with other stylists, McPhee continues to demonstrate the technical smarts and cerebral powers that make nearly any date on which he’s featured a necessity.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Blues: 1. Truth in the Abstract Blues 2. Cerulean Mood Swing 3. Requiem for an Empty Heart 4. I Love You Too Little Baby 5. The Shape of Blues to Come 6. Legend of the Three Blind Moose

Personnel: Blues: Joe McPhee (soprano and tenor saxophones) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass)

Track Listing: Oto: 1. Opening Might 2. Breakout 3. Dancing On The Wolf Road

Personnel: Oto: Joe McPhee (soprano and tenor saxophones); Alexander Hawkins (Hammond organ); John Edwards (bass) and Steve Noble (drums and percussion)