June 21, 2020
Arto Lindsay/Joe McPhee/Ken Vandermark/Phil Sudderberg
Corbett vs Dempsey CD 0064
Decoy with Joe McPhee
Roku 0023 CD
Doyen of ever-changing identities in the Free Music world, American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee has over the past half century expressed solidarity with interpretations ranging from the most stinging Free Jazz explorations to the most subdued deep listening experiments. In context these quartet discs suggest additional exploratory avenues.
Working with multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, guitarist Arto Lindsay and drummer Phil Sudderberg in Chicago on the Largest Afternoon’s 15 (!) tracks McPhee helps create what could be called his Hard Rock record. Yet about three months later in London, paired with Brits, bassist John Edwards, drummer Steve Noble and Alexander Hawkins playing Hammond B3 organ instead of his usual piano, McPhee aids in creating two slabs of near-Funk, close to what was expressed on 1970’s Nation Time, one of his first recordings.
Lindsay, known for his affiliations with New Wave bands like the Lounge Lizards, and the Ambitious Lovers plus Sudderberg, whose associates include Jim Baker and Mats Gustafsson, set the pace on Largest Afternoon. The former’s crashing; distorted frails and metallic drones mixed with popping ruffs from the drummer continuously vibrate alongside splattering honks, squeaks and flutters from the horn players, with everyone, most notably McPhee, shouting vocal exhortations. This Rock-like groove doesn’t preclude tonal probing with for example Vandermark’s snorting tongue rotation on baritone sax contrasting with McPhee’s overblowing multiphonics on alto or on “The World’s Longest Afternoon” and then the latter’s pocket trumpet squeezes evolving in double counterpoint with Vandermark’s moderating reed sequences.
Tracks like “Head Down and Bend to One Side” where the saxophonists’ collection of renal slurs, whistling altissimo runs and cries echoing from within the horn’s body preceding arena-rock echoes from the others encompassing clinched string stabs, electronic dial twisting and cymbal shakes and snare ruffs. Still other tracks such as “So What’s Your Idea of Epic” are open enough to experimentation so that split tone reed screams and melismatic saxophone cries mingle with shaking, wavering guitar distortions and a drum beat that would reassure even punk-rockers. Finally the entire studio session climaxes with the sectional “Or Depth of Field”, It evolves from an exposition of heraldic reed bites and puffs that snake upwards alongside cymbal and rim crashes and electronic string flanges to a layered saxophone duet. McPhee and Vandermark sway judder and refract simultaneously until drum ruffs and patterning plus tremolo guitar strums downshift the theme to a moderato conclusion.
Meanwhile on the London live session the funky Blues groove reaches such a pitch of foot-patting exuberance that there’s a sense the band members could be channeling the UK’s R&B scene of 1965 as the Graham Bond Organization (GBO). That means on either of the disc’s half-hour plus selections Noble would be Ginger Baker, Edwards Jack Bruce. McPhee Dick Heckstall-Smith and Hawkins Bond himself. The comparison is legit in part since members of the GBO started out as Jazz players. But it isn’t really, since except for a few inchoate half yodels and cries from McPhee no one sings and every one of the 21st Century players is a more sophisticated sound architect than the quartet members of a half century ago.
Still especially when all four work up a full head of creative steam, especially on the latter half of “DC”, the passionate animation that’s rumored to be missing in cerebral improvisation is very much in evidence. Featuring stop-time intensity, the track is kicked off by a rhythmic display of gong resonation and unattached cymbal pressure from Noble that’s quickly melded with spiccato jitters from Edwards’ strings, undulating glissandi and boosting pulses from Hawkins’ two keyboards and McPhee filling any spaces with multiphonic vibrations and echoes from the very bottom of his alto saxophone’s s-curve all the way up to sopranisssimo screams. Midway, with foot patting surges reaching an apex, McPhee verbal encouragement now sounds perfectly logical. With percussion escalation, the saxophonist keeps sounding the same note-pattern over and over, and is soon joined by thundering slaps from the bassist and swelling multi-note glissandi from Hawkins. Eventually spurts of clarion-pitched reed tones signal the ending.
This same mixture multiphonics and modulations is expressed on the opening “AC”, with the only difference that McPhee’s jagged pocket trumpet references adds some brassy near-Bebop swills to the tune. As these capillary riffs and later irregular reed vibrations continue to smear textures on top of the exposition, rhythmic bass-and-drum snaps and organ continuum solidify the theme. Biting variations from all eventually give way to McPhee’s Earl Bostic-style roadhouse bellowing – with Hawkins coming up with equivalent Bill Doggett-like cadences, until the piece fades away with downwards slurs.
McPhee is now 80. Yet on the evidence here it appears he’ll always find new musical worlds to conquer.
Track Listing: Largest: 1. Whether You Were There Or Not 2. She Must Have Known 3. Family Can Mean Many Things 4. I Don't Like This Talk About Stains 5. So What’s Your Idea of Epic 6. Chords and Lakes and Approximate Sizes 7. Head Down and Bend to One Side 8. The Push and Pull Beneath The Surface 9. The Distance Between the Door and the Car 10. A Screen Door the Size of a Building 11. The World’s Longest Afternoon 12. The World’s Largest Afternoon 13. Sometimes I Can See It From Here 14. When I Lose any Sense of Perspective 15. Or Depth of Field
Personnel: Largest: Joe McPhee (alto and tenor saxophones, pocket trumpet); Ken Vandermark (tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet); Arto Lindsay (guitar) and Phil Sudderberg (drums)
Track Listing: AC: 1. A/C 2. D/C
Personnel: AC: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, alto saxophone and voice); Alexander Hawkins (Hammond B3 organ); John Edwards (bass) and Steve Noble (drums)