Imaginary Numbers
Clean Feed CF 455 CD

Joe McPhee, Damon Smith, Alvin Fielder

Six Situations

NotTwo MW 954-2

Banal as it may appear to repeat it, but Joe McPhee continues to produce triumphant performances, even in his late seventies and almost a half century after releasing his first LP. Sophisticated in many sub genres, these high-quality trio performances pivot from the admiration the Poughkeepsie. N.Y.-based multi instrumentalist maintains for John Coltrane. Recorded with different bass and drum teams and consisting of original improvisations, the programs articulate Trane’s legacy more clearly than any number of discs recapitulating Trane tributes.

More obvious since it includes a poem dedicated to Trane, is Six Situations which matches McPhee’s tenor saxophone and voice to the contributions from Quincy, Mass.-based double bassist Damon Smith who has recorded with reedist ranging from John Butcher to Biggi Vinkeloe and Jackson, Miss- drummer Alvin Fielder whose saxophone partners include Kidd Jordan and Roscoe Mitchell. Tweaking the Trans legacy sideways is Imaginary Numbers, one track of which is entitled “Zero Supreme Love (For John Coltrane)”. McPhee compatriots here are both European: German-French bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, who has worked with saxophonists like Frode Gjerstad, and Mette Rasmussen and Norwegian percussionist Ståle Liavik Solberg who has also recorded with Butcher. To further mix things up McPhee plays pocket trumpet as well as tenor saxophone. Still that upfront Trane salute is Imaginary Numbers’ most toned-down track, with slurping reed vibrations, drum clip-clops and rugged string strums. It’s of a piece with the more expected Free Jazz playing on Six Situations and could join that CD without fissure.

Otherwise Imaginary Numbers’ narratives are more experimental. Not only does McPhee snarl, stutter and scream multiphonics throughout, but his trumpet tones also take on multiple identities. Plunger tones and capillary crackles situate the brass forays midway between such Trane brass partners as Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard, with McPhee’s magisterial presence dominant. Contrasts affect all three players on “A”, especially when the tenor saxophonist alternates intense glottal punctuation with passages that could accompany standards. Solberg’s reverberating rolls, bell whumps and shuffles amplify the latter expositions, while the bassist’s swabbing string friction dovetails in with McPhee’s atonal snarls and bleats.

The minimally titled but extended “i” is the session’s tour-de-force. As the bassist lays down a series of pumps and pops and the drummer startling percussive echoes, McPhee unleashes blistering brass notes that buzz in double counterpoint with first one and then the other player. As Niggenkemper pushes forward with sul tasto scrawls, McPhee alters his narrative so that skyscraper-high brass tones are replaced by nuanced saxophone slurs that lock in with bass string stops and drum rim shots, suggesting Trane’s quartet explorations. Following the saxophonist’s slippery tongue and air motifs, McPhee complements that sequence with high-pitched trumpet tones, until all three finally construct an appropriate climax out of screeches, slices and smacks.

More traditional in comparison are the six situations on the other disc. However this CD’s extended track, “Red and Green Alternatives” while notable for an expansion of the musical thesis that melds pure free improvisation with more studied Free Jazz motifs, allows the adaptations to unroll at too great a length. More compact tracks better convey the program. Among them is the almost-as-lengthy introduction, “The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy”. Set up with drum rolls, McPhee asserts himself with double-tongued Tranesque contours within 90 seconds and soon extends his vibrations alongside Smith’s string pinches. Reaching a Blues progression, the saxophonist splutters and squeezes out sheets of sound which by the track’s final minutes abate enough to create a calming conclusion

This in-and-out salute to Trane’s accustomed and exploratory impulses continues throughout the disc. The saxophonist is able to personify both roles so well, that on “Blue Trees in Wind” at one point he shreds textures alongside Smith’s swabbing string reverberations, but surrounds that avant highpoint with a more conventional progression that by the ending works in quotes from “God Bless the Child”. By the time “The Blood of a Martyr” and “Green Crossing Greens”, the penultimate and final improvisations arrive, the musical schizophrenia is perfectly balanced. Honking irregular vibrations are encased within a regular groove on the penultimate track, whereas the bass drum and cymbal showcase from Fielder that introduces “Green Crossing Greens”, is surmounted by a supple moderato tenor solo that suggests many sides of Trane throughout the years. As moderato as the late saxophonist’s pre-avant-garde soloing, backed by exercise-rubber-band thick strokes from the bassist and another drum display, this track, in fact, the two CDs in general are a fitting tribute to Trane as well as McPhee.

Thirteen years younger than Coltrane and having lived, so far, almost 40 years longer, appreciation for McPhee have only been universally acknowledged during the past two decades. Although none of his discs have become part of Jazz’s lingua franca as some of Trane’s have, that the number of high-quality McPhee CDs like these continues to multiply, is cause enough for celebration.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Imaginary: 1. i 2. A 3. Zero Supreme Love (For John Coltrane)

Personnel: Imaginary: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet and tenor saxophone); Pascal Niggenkemper (bass) and Ståle Liavik Solberg (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Six: 1. The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy 2. Blue Trees in Wind 3. Alternate Diagonals 4. Red and Green Alternatives 5. The Blood of a Martyr 6. Green Crossing Greens

Personnel: Six: Joe McPhee (tenor saxophone and voice); Damon Smith (bass) and Alvin Fielder (drums)