Michael Marcus/Joe McPhee/Jay Rosen/Warren Smith

Blue Reality Quartet
Mahakala Music MAHA 015

Rodrigo Amado This Is Our Language Quartet

Let the Free Be Men

Trost TR 209

Joining a growing cadre of mature improvisers who continue innovating in their Golden Years is American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. McPhee who will be 82 in November is just as peripatetic and busy as he was a half century ago, maybe busier. He’s also game to add his skills to any ensemble, fitting in seamlessly. These discs, recorded when he was only 78 or 80 respectively confirm this. Each session approaches free music in a contrary manner.

Firmly committed to Free Jazz, tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado’s This Is Our Language Quartet adds his Portuguese to the English spoken by McPhee, bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Chris Corsano. An Iberian improvised exemplar who has worked with many local and international players, Amado freely shares the program, only unleashing his hoarse and bellicose statements when appropriate. During this live Copenhagen gig there’s also space for scene setting from Kessler’s low-pitched string drones and Corsano’s clatters and pops. Moving among pocket trumpet, soprano saxophone and PVC pipe, McPhee capillary flatulence and narrow reed tonguing harmonizes or contrasts with the tenor saxophonist’s yelping split tones or expansive lowing. McPhee shows his versatility on “Men is Woman is Man” nimbly converting PVC blows into mellow scoops that vibrate in a lustrous fashion alongside double bass sweeps. However the extended title track and “Never Surrender” give more scope to quadruple interaction. Taken mid-tempo, the later weaves long-lined tenor saxophone accents with ascending string plucks; buzzing cymbal pressure and McPhee’s equally imposing muted brass and supple soprano saxophone echoes. Mercurial but horizontal, the ending finds both horns arriving at the same note pattern. “Let the Free Be Men” is more restrained, due to the double counterpoint exposition from the two saxes, further harmonized with Kessler’s string pumps. Keeping the adagio piece ambulatory with a walking bass line, the mid section is dismantled with sprinkled doits from McPhee and hearty smears and cries from Amado. Screeching dual reed ascendance to altissimo then sopranissimo tones plus drum smashes and pummels means the tune exits with elevated excitement.

If one watchword of the Amado quartet program is “Never Surrender” then this defiance is reflected in the cover shot of the Blue Reality Quartet with each member sporting a Covid-19 preventive face mask. Despite that, the CD’s seven tracks are less confrontational than those on the other disc. Perhaps it’s because the more savory and rounded projections are expressed using more multiples of instruments. McPhee plays tenor and soprano saxophones and alto clarinet; Michael Marcus tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and bass flute; Warren Smith uses vibraphone and drums and Jay Rosen drums and percussion. Denizens of the New York improv scene, each has a long history of working together in various configurations. Interestingly enough despite the quartet’s Free Jazz bone fides, especially when McPhee concentrates on the alto clarinet’s chalumeau register and Smith swaying vibes’ notes, the sound is like those Modern Jazz Quartet sessions that featured Jimmy Giuffre and Milt Jackson. “Coney Island Funk” for instance suggests the first two words rather than the third. Still even as McPhee maintains a fragmenting thickness the exposition is still horizontal and effervescent.

The three track surrounding that one feature McPhee and Marcus on tenor saxophones give the improvisations a harder interface, and in the case of “Bluer than Blue”, a classic Blues tinge. Intertwining reed tones during the expositions don’t prevent the narratives from moving forward logically. Furthermore during the tunes’ elaborations, one saxophonist usually takes on a breathy Ben Webster-like tone and the other outputs Booker Ervin-styled bites. A few unforeseen reed split tones confirm the tunes’ contemporary cast however as do the drummers’ press rolls and chain shaking coloration on “East Side Dilemma”. Marcus’ bright tone on the bass flute creates the most bucolic and melodic interactions elsewhere. Confirming his skills at sophisticated traverse elaboration however, McPhee’s sax interjections, the vibist’s hard metal slaps and drum cracks preclude a slip into Jazz mood music.

Fans of intense improvisation will go for Let the Free Be Men; while those who prefer improvisation elaboration be tempered with relaxation will prefer the Blue Reality Quartet. Both CDs aptly attain their goals and each shows how much McPhee can do.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Let: 1.Resist! 2. Let the Free Be Men 3. Men is Woman is Man 4. Never Surrender

Personnel: Let: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, soprano saxophone, PVC pipe); Rodrigo Amado (tenor saxophone); Kent Kessler (bass) and Chris Corsano (drums)

Track Listing: Blue: 1. Love Exists Everywhere 2. Chartreuse Tulips 3.Joe's Train 4. Coney Island Funk 5. Bluer Than Blue 6. East Side Dilemma 7. Warren's Theme

Personnel: Blue: Michael Marcus (tenor saxophone bass clarinet, bass flute); Joe McPhee (tenor and soprano saxophones, alto clarinet); Warren Smith (vibraphone and drums) and Jay Rosen (drums and percussion)