Joe McPhee-Paal Nilssen-Love

Red Sky
PNL 016

Evan Parker & Joe McPhee

What/If/They Both Could Fly

Rune Grammofon RCD 2149CD

Survival Unit III

Game Theory

NotTwo MW 907-2

Nearly 40 years after his first recording session there seems to be little that American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, 74, can’t express on his saxophones or pocket trumpet. But the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based experimental musician keeps challenging himself in new situations. Each of the small group CDs here, recorded over a four year period, is excellent in its own way, and on each McPhee brings the proper horn(s) and mind set to create high quality improvisations. Additionally each is distinctive enough to set it apart from the others and confirm McPhee’s status as an original.

From 2008, Red Sky is a bare-bones meeting where Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who has partnered saxophonists as different as German Peter Brötzmann and the UK’s John Butcher, goes mano à mano with McPhee on five mid-length selections. Starting from the top, the American moves from spits and grace notes on pocket trumpet to rugged honks and tongue slurps on tenor saxophone all the while parrying Nilssen-Love’s tremolo ruffs and pops. As unpredictable as McPhee, the drummer’s output can be as bombastically pounding as a Gene Krupa showcase, as measured as a classicist’s percussion investigation or as rife with ritualistic recall as a Native American tom-tom beat. Keeping the duos invigorating as well as fascinating, McPhee is perfectly in control, no more so on the extended title tune, where a series of split tones makes it appear as if he’s playing an Eastern European version of “Ghosts”. Variations of updated Energy Music’s unbridled ferment show up on most of the other tracks as the two screech slap, splatter and shatter tones and timbres with abandon. Fittingly though, the final piece changes the mood with a swaggering, yet respectful reading of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”. Ripped apart and reconstituted, McPhee’s and Nilssen-Love’s creative take on the familiar doesn’t ignore an emotional outline of the head by the tenor saxophonist as introduction and summation.

A dramatic and sympathetic recitation of his apocalyptic poem, “A Song for Beggars” on the last track, is the unexpected surprise on Game Theory, which is otherwise devoted to instrumental statements from McPhee on alto saxophone and pocket trumpet, plus Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics plus Michael Zerang on percussion. Yearning and this-side-of-R&B, McPhee’s crying reed work is as compassionate as it is edgy, with the others appropriately supportive as the spoken word section is delineated. That support is also present during the rest of the disc. But so are unmatched technical displays, especially from the cellist, whose pointed triple-stopping and staccato plucks are perfect foil(s) for the reedman’s vocalized emphasis on tunes such as “Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head” and “Love in the Time of Aids”. Zerang’s beat switching to preserve chromatic motion on both compositions, demonstrates his skills. He solidifies the bottom with stentorian press rolls, allowing the others maximum freedom. Plus the second tune his neo-Bop pulsing and the cellist’s neo-classical string sweeps help move McPhee’s enraged altissimo theme variations back to a happier more measured line. “Zero-Sum Game” is unique as well. That’s because it’s the electronically pushed blurry drones and Sun Ra-like outer-space like glissandi from Lonberg-Holm which upset the sardonic theme. As razor-thin, radio-wave affiliated string scrapes push aside Zerang’s centred cymbal strokes, McPhee adds a human element with vibrating tongue shakes preventing the blurry wave forms from burying the narrative.

Although both featured musicians are also masters of electro-acoustic experiments, there are no hints of processing or programming on What/If/They Both Could Fly. Instead what’s on show are four musical meetings between two of Free Music’s most profound veterans: McPhee on soprano saxophone and pocket trumpet and Briton Evan Parker, 70, playing tenor saxophone. From the very first notes of “What” the two take off propelling tongue stops, multiphonics and all manner of disconnected breaths at one another with a ferocity that makes McPhee duet with Nilssen-Love sound like garden party conversation. While McPhee’s roistering brass notes can cause a reaction in Parker that leads to saxophone slurps and screeches, both are too sophisticated sonically to limit themselves to staccato fireworks. At times the contorted lines which appear to be eviscerating the horns’ innards turn to mellow blending, with McPhee’s basic blowing meeting Parker’s pseudo-hornpipe trills.

In the same way, while the four shortish selections are enlivened by a few instances of Parker’s almost formula-like circular breathing, the emphasis is on affinity not flamboyance. That’s why the defining track is likely “If” where both play saxophone. Ur-modern since the bagpipe-like tremolos are expressed with almost no pauses between phrasing, the vibrancy is engendered in a traditional call-and-response pattern. As Parker’s slightly darker and McPhee’s higher pitched vibrations blend, rebound and challenge one another with gratifying results, the two could be Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane on Tenor Madness or even Lester Young and Hershel Evans in the Basie band.

Able to adapt to any situation, McPhee’s playing on these CDs suggest why he’s still operating at top form even as he ages.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Red: 1. Red Sky (Red Sky At Night, Sailor's Delight, Red Sky In The Morning, Sailors Warning 2. Till (Remembering Emmett Till) 3. Peach Melba 4. Iron Man Returns 5. Come Sunday

Personnel: Red: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet and tenor saxophone) and Paal Nilssen-love (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: What: 1. What 2. If 3. They Both Could Fly

Personnel: What: Evan Parker (tenor saxophone) and Joe McPhee (soprano saxophone and pocket trumpet)

Track Listing: Game: 1. Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head 2. Love in the Time of Aids 3. Zero-Sum Game 4. A Song for Beggars

Personnel: Game: Joe McPhee (alto saxophone and pocket trumpet); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics) and Michael Zerang (percussion)