Joe McPhee

Nation Time - The Complete Recordings
Corbett vs Dempsey CvD CD 011

By Ken Waxman

Hard to imagine when acknowledging trumpeter/saxophonist Joe McPhee’s present day mastery as a cerebral improviser, but there was a time when the Poughkeepsie-NY native was a jazz-funk proponent as well. The evidence is captured on many tracks here. Consisting of sessions from ’69 and ’70, this four-CD box set not only includes the originally issued Nation Time and Black Magic Man LPs in their entirety, but also 17 tracks previously unreleased on CD. Here is the earliest recorded McPhee, in a funky night club setting playing trumpet on bop standards like “Milestones”. Even more astounding are tracks taped at the same concerts that produced Nation Time where an eight-piece ensemble, including two electric keyboards and two percussionist, work out on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”.

To put these sounds in context, it appears that with these highly rhythmic efforts McPhee, like his contemporaries Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, was searching for the perfect jazz-funk fusion. Unfortunately the impulse was soon buried under cliché and formula, but at the time it was a legitimate attempt to connect experimental sounds with so-called people’s music. At the same time by playing standards, McPhee was demonstrating his commitment to the jazz tradition.

Like other boxed sets devoted to the initial works of game-changers such as Mile Davis or Charlie Parker, in truth most of the unissued tracks here are of more historical than musical interest. For example while McPhee’s melodic trumpeting on the earliest (1969) tracks can’t be compared to the assured bop runs from tenor saxophonist Otis Greene, he’s obviously coming from a different place than the saxophonist; and vibist Ernest Bostic, whose workout on “Bags Groove” is neither helped nor hindered by McPhee’s tremolo blasts. It’s obvious McPhee isn’t Davis or Maynard Ferguson. But in the final section he composed for the first run-though of “Nation Time” – titled after the fact – the anthematic theme that will be elaborated into a more than 19-minute showpiece is germinating.

Recorded the next year The Vasser Sessions find a rough and ragged band trying its hand at all sorts of jazz-oriented sounds, including the foot-stomping Brown piece, mostly an R&B showcase for extended drum solos from Bostic and Bruce Thompson, plus note-stuffed comping from Mike Kull on electric piano. With McPhee doing his best Trane-like undulations on tenor, Kull switches to badly recorded acoustic piano for McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation”, with more attention to detail than depth. Kull’s unease may relate to almost being drowned out by the drummers and Tyrone Crabb’s electric bass. Despite jittery smears from Herbie Leaman’s B-3 and Crabb’s dreary unison humming-and-plucking on acoustic bass, the arrangement on McPhee’s “Sunshower” presages a two saxophone improvising strategy he would later perfect. With one sax honking and the other shrilling, a common ground is created and Greene appears to be pushing past his comfort zone to brush against experimental music.

The three tracks originally released on CJR Records’ Nation Time confirm this evolution, although it was still a mercurial work in progress. “Shakey Jake” for instance, is a straightforward funk riff that sounds as if it’s being played by War fronted by David Fathead Newman and Hank Crawford, especially when guitarist Davey Jones trots out predictable, string-shredding blues licks. “Nation Time”, based on a revolutionary poem by LeRoi Jones, with that slogan chanted at the top, is the stunner here as McPhee attains the funk-futuristic music blend he was seeking. With an expanded reed vocabulary which mixes harsh Aylerian screeches and majestic, Trane-like meditations, McPhee brushes up against Kull’s thumping electric piano riffs and the thickened percussion rumble without the narrative ever faltering

After that, it was just a short step to Black Magic Man which was also Hat Hut’s first release. Although the band still retained some of its funk-jazz origin – the Krull-McPhee duet at the end of “Hymn of the Dragon King” could be from Eddie Harris’ and Les McCann’ Swiss Movement record – the selections are fully in the free-jazz orbit. Three versions – two previously unreleased – of “Song for Lauren” demonstrate how the saxophonist’s stuttering reed bites mixed with the pianist’s gentling runs allow the group to play a ballad, but add enough distance so it never becomes flowery.

More remarkable are the title tune and “Hymn of the Dragon King”. On “Black Magic Man”, McPhee manages to fabricate a searching, avant-garde performance that has enough leeway for the keyboardist’s more traditional sliding electric piano breaks, brawny drum beats and brassy trumpet runs. As the theme comes pointillistically into focus, piano and drum riffs and the saxophonist’s emotional slurps and swallows reinforce one another. On the other tune, Greene gets into the mood propelling a ney-like obbligato to McPhee’s multi-faceted growls and whinnies, as the bellicose six-man rhythm section vamps as robustly if it was playing R&B.

A singular achievement, Nation Time - The Complete Recordings should interest those who follow McPhee’s incredibly productive career and want to check out his origins, as well as folks whose preference is for vibrant funk-jazz from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Track Listing: CD1, Nation Time: 1. Nation Time 2. Shakey Jake* 3. Scorpio’s Dance CD2, Black Magic Man: 1. Black Magic Man 2. Song for Lauren 3. Hymn of the Dragon Kings 4. Song for Lauren alternate 1 5. Song for Lauren alternate 2 CD3, Nation Time Preview: 1. Nation Time 2. Untitled 3. Milestones 4. My Funny Valentine 5. Bag's Groove 6. Breakaway Theme CD4, The Vasser Sessions: 1. Cold Sweat 2. Contemplation 3. Spring Street 4. Hymn of the Dragon Kings 5. Sunshower 6. Untitled

Personnel: CD1: Joe McPhee: trumpet, tenor saxophone; Otis Greene: alto saxophone*; Mike Kull: piano, electric piano; Herbie Lehman: organ*; Davey Jones: guitar*; Tyrone Crabb: bass, electric bass, trumpet; Bruce Thompson, Ernest Bostic: percussion CD2: Joe McPhee: trumpet, tenor saxophone; Otis Greene: alto saxophone*; Mike Kull: piano, electric piano; Herbie Lehman: organ*; Davey Jones: guitar*; Tyrone Crabb: bass, electric bass, trumpet; Bruce Thompson, Ernest Bostic: percussion CD3: Joe McPhee: trumpet; Otis Greene: tenor saxophone; Ernest Bostic: vibes; Tyrone Crabb: bass; Bruce Thompson: percussion CD4: Joe McPhee: trumpet, tenor saxophone; Otis Greene: alto saxophone; Mike Kull: piano, electric piano; Herbie Lehman: organ; Davey Jones: guitar; Tyrone Crabb: bass, electric bass, trumpet; Bruce Thompson, Ernest Bostic: percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2014