A Night in Alchemia
NotTwo MW992-2

Joe McPhee & Paal Nilssen-Love

Song for the Big Chief

PNL Records PNL 046

Joe McPhee and Fred Lonberg-Holm

No Time Left for Sadness

Corbett vs Dempsey CD 0065

Now comfortably settling into his ninth decade – he turned 80 in November 2019 – multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee continues to take on as many challenges as he has in the past and turn out new discs with a regularity that could make Anthony Braxton’s head spin. The disparity between his most recent and older session is that now his playing associates, while middle-aged, are two or three decades younger than him. Not that it makes much difference. Regardless of the age or nationality of those musicians with whom he works, the language of improvisation creates a common bond.

While he doesn’t ignore larger ensembles McPhee often works in duo or trio settings as he does on these representative discs. A semi-threnody recorded just after the death of drummer Sunny Murray, Song for the Big Chief is a live foray with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, 45. Featuring one of his working trios, A Night in Alchemia is another live show with British bassist John Edwards, who is in his 50s and German drummer Klaus Kugel, 60, while No Time Left for Sadness, which could be the reverse title of the first CD, is a studio session with American cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, 57. All are leaders in their own right as well as busy in other bands.

On Song for the Big Chief, the two later tracks highlight McPhee’s barking and biting saxophone split tones in contrapuntal challenges with Nilssen-Love’s spirited Mylar slaps and cymbal shatters. This is especially notable at the beginning of “A Fantasy for Lester” where it appears as if both players are deconstructing their instruments bit-by-bit and part-by-part. Still he major arrangement involves the title track. The multiplicity of airy silences and note flurries on the saxophonist’s part as well as the drummer’s tick-tock patterning are emphasized on “Song for the Big Chief (Old Man River)”. Verbalizing Murray’s place in the Free Jazz firmament, McPhee begins to play, and often returns to the basic “Old Man River” melody, which Murray recorded with Albert Ayler, one of McPhee’s formative influences. Unlike Ayler who propelled a spaciously vibrated variant of the classic tune, McPhee quickly gets away from the melody and while shouting through his tenor saxophone propels dour multiphonic blasts and keening cries until reaching one crescendo of clarion, bugle-like discordance. Redoubling his bass drum ruffs, press roll variations and cymbal shuffles, only in the penultimate minutes does Nilssen-Love, intentionally or not, sound out garbage-lid-like rapping that vaguely suggests some of the late drummer's tropes. With maracas-like shakes and funeral bass drum strokes the drummer intensifies the requiem melody at the finale as the saxophonist reaches the heights of gospel-like reverie.

Exhibiting a comparable program of telepathy of timing the duet with Lonberg-Holm evolves in an analogous manner. The tracks are as dissonant and express any many pitches and timbres as those recorded with Nilssen-Love, but electronics from the cellist adds a touch of echoing otherworldliness. In spite of the title as well there’s no overwhelming theme present. Instead McPhee and Longerg-Holm, who have recorded together frequently in large configurations, vie with one another to project the most affecting timbres. As McPhee yowls split tones and echoing vibrations which occasionally dip into the chalumeau register, and just as frequently wrench upwards to altissimo pitches, Lonberg-Holm supplies the thematic cement. At the same time the cellist’s jagged triple-stopping spiccato and sul ponticello thrusts which make it appear wood and string are splintering along with the tones, create a comparable dissonance. Screams vocalized through the horn’s body tube or mellow sighs expressed the same way means that McPhee usually supplies the duo’s emotional content. Yet at the same time Lonberg-Holm’s careful stroking sketch in other shades of the aural color spectrum. Despite the spiky harshness of the duo’s exposition there’s also a point at the finale of the second track where relaxed interaction creates something as akin to a lyrical interlude.

That unexpected lyricism is also expressed at the very end of A Night in Alchemia. Backed by Kugel’s percussion chiming and Edwards’ sentiment bowing, McPhee outputs a melody that appears to be a close cousin to “Danny Boy” or “Scotland the Brave”. However the rest of the date demonstrates the energy that can be projected by tight, affiliated aggregation. Beginning with an assemblage of bell shakes and gong resonation plus chunky string reverberation the introductory track soon settles into a showcase for the saxophonist’s take on Ayler-Trane reed dimensions, suborning honks, tongue flutters as well as some bel canto chanting to his individual conception. Latterly it’s Kugel’s rolling pops and cymbal whumps plus Edwards rapid sul ponticello string slices that set up “At the Waters Edge”, the set’s crucial definition of three-part improvising. As strings scurry to unexpected emphasis and continual beats maintain chromatic movement, McPhee first whistles distinctive broken timbres from his pocket trumpet and later slows down the narrative with low-pitched split tones from his tenor saxophone. Producing Bop-like vamps from his reed elaborations, McPhee maintains momentum but signals the conclusions with a series of vocal whoops.

Perpetually inventive and sophisticated in a legion of musical circumstances, if and he maintain their health one could imagine McPhee creating noteworthy modes as a nonagenarian or even a centenarian.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Song: 1. Song for the Big Chief (Old Man River) 2. Knox 3. A Fantasy for Lester

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

Track Listing: Night: 1. Burden of Proof 2. Just To Wait 3. At the Waters Edge 4. To Watch a Mist Rise

Personnel: Night: Joe McPhee (tenor and alto saxophones and pocket trumpet); John Edwards (bass) and Klaus Kugel (drums)

Track Listing: Time: 1. That Time 2. This Time 3. Next Time

Personnel: Time: Joe McPhee (tenor saxophone) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics)