Joe McPhee

Alone Together
Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsDCD021

Looking back from an early 21st Century vantage point the audacity of recording an LP of solo and overdubbed reed and brass improvisations may appear less radical then it was then. After all commercial overdubbing had been around for years and solo LPs sans rhythm sections had already appeared from Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker, among others. But from the relative obscurity of West Park, N.Y. in 1974 and (mostly) 1979, with the help of his friend Craig Johnson, here was Joe McPhee, then known, if at all, for his releases on the then hard-to-fund Swiss hat Hurt label, multiplying skills as if he was organizing a meeting between members of the World Saxophone Quartet and Brass Fantasy.

Like the appetizers, salads and desserts of an exceptional banquet, the brief earlier-recorded tracks mostly function as connective motifs. The longer tracks provide the meat and potatoes, with McPhee in many guises as if he is cook, pastry chef, maitre d’ and waiter simultaneously. On “Alto Horn Quartet” for examples he – or is it they? – comes across like an out-of-control brass band passing a conservatory picking up snatches of Peter and the Wolf played through the window, as well as some straight-ahead Bebop riffs. This overlap gives the performance a pseudo-grisaille effect, Fluttery brass comments on the initial theme start things off until all the horns’ amalgamate in close formation at the end. Another point is that while this is the 1970s, McPhee’s playing isn’t as so-called free as it would be later on. For instance on certain melodic outings, as well as a track such as “Trumpet/Tenor Duo”, the trumpet sounds are related more to mainstream Donald Byrd, then Don Cherry, the latter of whom appears to be the inspiration for other brass roles. Some reed solos may be insistently shrill, like a child demanding immediate entrance to his home, others, such as “Tenor/Alto Duo” leap the narrow chasm between “East Broadway Rundown” and bar-walking R&B. Paradoxically like an opera singer who can also scat, “Alto Saxophone Quartet” comes across as the most abstract and the more harmonically tight excursion. Broken and bent reed timbres vie for supremacy introducing multi-hued saxophone colors until they final reconcile.

Disregarding titles, the layered narratives that are most expressive of a unifying program are “Brass/Reed Quartet” and “Reed Quartet” which follow one after another. As carefully balanced as a pachyderm on a giant medicine ball, the plunger flugelhorn tones, brittle trumpet blasts, wispy alto saxophone smears and rugged tenor saxophone tones are mosaically symmetrical. Blowsy brass Woody Woodpecker-like jolts share space with chromatic reed snorts on the second tune, which through a process of doubling and slicing the textural mishmash ends with a final sequence that’s high-pitched but connective. Strangled reed cries plus low-pitched glissandi make “Brass/Reed Quartet II” a junior-partner-like coda to the preceding track.

Someone as creative today in his seventies as he was in his thirties, Alone Together is another in a long list of superior Joe McPhee performances.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Theme 2. Soprano/Alto/Tenor Trio 3. Tenor/Alto Duo 4. Flugelhorn/Alto Duo 5. Trumpet/Tenor Duo 6. Alto Saxophone Quartet 7. Brass/Reed Quartet 8. Reed Quartet 9. Brass/Reed Quartet II 10. Alto Horn Quartet 11. Theme

Personnel: Joe McPhee (trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano, alto and tenor saxophones and alto horn)