Joe McPhee & Raymond Boni

Live from the Magic City
Trost Records TR151

Joe McPhee & Ingebrigt Håker Flaten


Trost Records TR157

Without Jazz adopting wholeheartedly a Confucian or Aboriginal culture where respect for elders outweighs many factors, it can’t be disputed that some of the most notable creativity over the past few years have come from improvisers who will never see 70 again. Then there are innovators like Joe McPhee who in 1969 arrived with a fully-formed vision on his first LP, Underground Railroad, and at 77 is still as cutting edge as the newest smart phone. Along the way McPhee has been involved in more tributaries of the Jazz’s ocean than there are run offs from land after a superabundant deluge. He has played Jazz standards and heroic salutes, dabbled in electronics and looping, touched on R&B and noted sounds, been featured in long-running and pick-up bands, and in multi-person ensembles or solo. His work is always of a consistent high quality.

Live from the Magic City is a 1985 disc of three intense improvisations featuring McPhee with one of his frequent playing partners of the day, French guitarist Raymond Boni, who was less than a decade younger than him. Both players are plugged into electronics. Bricktop, recorded 15 years later, has McPhee, trading ideas with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, who was born a couple of years after the saxophonist’s first LP was released. If anything this second CD is better than the first. Like a military hero who wears his decoration discretely in on his lapel rather than a row of medals though, McPhee displays his links to Jazz history in the same manner on both. Electronic interludes and the title the Magic City, refers to Birmingham Ala., earth landing place of Sun Ra. Meanwhile Bricktop honors Parisian night club owner and chanteuse of the same name born Ada Smith (1894-1964) in West Virginia.

Experimental – at least for those times – Boni and McPhee, playing soprano saxophone are like classic animation film colorists, building up the landscape of their interactions from the juxtaposition of many widths, shapes and tinctures from their instruments through the 35-minute-plus “Set 1”. Splashed and processed repetative loops and crackles underline and extend acoustic properties which are already linked to extended techniques as strident licks rife with rattles and blue notes shake out into connective but widely spaced, chording from Bono. Meanwhile McPhee’s emotional triple tonguing cycles through altissimo squeals and staccato reed bites. Slowing down like the clicking of a clock timer, the two attain a climax in the last 10 minutes, but not before reed suggestions of earlier Jazz are heard. Finally the exotic, electric and esoteric live and processed timbres overlap and blend. The result is look like at a two-pane mirror, one cloudy and one clear. If anything “Set 2 Part A” is even better. With McPhee vocally deconstructing with electronic echoes and varied word and syllable emphasis Eric Dolphy’s famous dictum that music can never be recaptured after it’s played, the track resembles Alvin Lucier’s sound art classic “I am sitting in a room”. Instructively the remainder of the track relates more to classic Free Music with Boni attacking the guitar neck from a variety of angles with vibrating pumps as chunky as hard candy, while McPhee whining and wrenching split tones seem to come from his horn’s outer finish as well as deep inside the body tube. The supersonic speed and rhythmic sophistication applied to this lasts the rest of the session, with a swing riff signaling the end of the set and confirming the myriad skills of both players.

Flash forward 30 years and like the Bionic Man liberated from all his electronic gizmos, using only his tenor saxophone, McPhee intersects with Håker Flaten’s polished acoustic strategy. Although no tunes, standards or otherwise, are played during the CD’s three duets, like the scent of a bouquet that has just been taken out of room, sonic suggestions of Bricktop’s black-and-tan Paris bistro can be sensed. Perhaps it has to do with the bassist’s restrained cello-pitched introduction to the second track or the shuffle bass tone beginning of the concluding “Montmartre”. At least the thick wheezes with which the saxophonist builds into his solo by concentrating pointillist dribs, posits what Coleman Hawkins may have sounded like had he made it to the 21st Century. At the same time while the bassist’s flowing patterns and the saxophonist’s sleek echoes on the preceding “Bricktop” are applied as capaciously as peanut butter. McPhee’s multiphonic exposition of sharpened horn tinctures and flutter tongue extensions on “Harlem” which opens the CD also suggest the highs and lows, violence and peace, sleaze and purity that made up Bricktop’s Harlem, which she was able to dress up and import to Paris. As close as conjoined twins, Håker Flaten’s straight ahead backing confirms McPhee’s – and by extension Smith’s – sense of propulsive progression. Using a quote from Ornette Coleman’s “Focus on Sanity” before nasal interpolations works into a relentless groove that bring the piece to a halt, McPhee’s narrative subtly confirms the historical link between his advanced sounds and ones Bricktop purveyed 80 years earlier.

Smith lived to be 90. On the strength of these discs, if McPhee has similar longevity more first-rate sounds lie in his future.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Live: 1. Set 1 2. Set 2 Part A 3. Set 2 Part B

Personnel: Live: Joe McPhee (soprano saxophone, electronics and voice) and Raymond Boni (guitar and electronics)

Track Listing: Bricktop: 1. Harlem 2. Bricktop 3. Montmartre

Personnel: Bricktop: Joe McPhee (tenor saxophone) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass)