Byron Coley On
Joe McPhee's
Formational Blocks

In what is rumored to be a final burst of activity before surrendering to the vast blankness of Australia's Outback, Bo' Weavil Records has reissued Joe McPhee's first four LPs* in (more or less) their original packages. These were the only four LPs issued by CJR, a label run by the painter, Craig Johnson, although he did revive the label in 2005 to issue some McPhee CDs. The four albums are all quite different from each other, texturally, but they form a cohesive listening cycle, and one that should be known better. The original LPs have been scarce for a while -- especially the first two -- but the sounds have appeared on CDs from a couple of John Corbett-related imprints, so they're not as arcane as they once were. Still, the music is best heard in its original form, on LP.

My own introduction to McPhee's music happened in the late '70s when my attention was caught by a used copy of the first press of Black Magic Man (Hat Hut) with its mysterious three-part gatefold sleeve. I'd never heard of McPhee, but that record just looked and felt too good to pass up. And, indeed, it proved to be a bruiser. McPhee's other early Hat Hut titles -- all in those amazing Klaus Baumgärtner covers -- turned up now and then, and they all sounded pretty great too. But it wasn't until I moved to L.A. in 1981 that I discovered the CJR LPs. The latter two of them were still available from both Rick Ballard and North Country, but the earlier ones took a while to dig up. And what can you say, really, except that they're all pretty fucking great? Let's look at them in reverse order, since that's the way I found them.

“And what can you say, really, except that they're all pretty fucking great?”

Pieces of Light was recorded in April 1974 and released later that year. It's a duo recording for the Arp synthesizer of John Snyder and McPhee on a staggering number of instruments -- trumpet, flugelhorn, e-flat alto horn, pocket cornet, tenor sax, flute, modified Nagoya harp, ceramic wind chimes, bird chimes, bamboo wind chimes, and voice. As might be expected from that array, the music has a very loose, extremely hippie-fried vibe. It's pretty far from the fire music marking McPhee's other early recordings. Consequently, it often gets dismissed by squares, but I've always loved it. There's just something about the way synth and jazz instruments pair up that is quite swoon-inducing, from my seat. Other examples include Teitelbaum and Braxton's collabs (Time Zones on Freedom, Open Aspects '82 on Hat ART, etc.), Lacy, Curran and Rzewski's Threads on Horo, and Sun Ra's Night of the Purple Moon on Saturn. I might actually expand this list to include examples of tape music such as those on Roland Kirk's Rip Rig & Panic on Limelight and Bob James' Explosions on ESP, but that'd be cheating.

Pieces of Light is an explicit suite of duets for Arp and various instruments, designed to invoke a shifting tapestry of abstractions. McPhee opens with a nearly-solo tenor piece that hews more closely to his better known approach, but I find the slowly-unwinding weirdness of the album as a whole to be fantastic. Back in the last century, when I was bent on turning people onto jazz and improv, I would always loan neophytes this record or make them a tape of it. Pieces of Light is a bizarre cross of sounds -- jazz, pysch, prog, aleatory composition and pure freak register. A classic of what they used to call “late night sounds.”

“But apparently, McPhee was ready for anything. This is a fact he's proven time and again over the last 45 years...”

Trinity by McPhee, pianist Mike Kull and percussionist Harold E. Smith, was recorded in November 1971 and released the following year. There are three long tracks on the album. The first, “Ionization,” opens with a long duo for McPhee and Smith, before Kull appears with a splash of keys. The initial sequence has a tone reminiscent of the music on Duo Infinity (by Alex Cline and Jamil Shabaka on Aten), but Kull's playing adds what feels (to me, anyway) like somewhat Continental shading. The way he lays out his lines has an eccentric energy one associates with Central Europe. On the flip, however, Kull gets onto the electric piano and plays with a space bluesiness that recalls Ra's early work on the instrument. The track “Astral Spirits,” while technically dedicated to Albert Ayler, actually has an edge that's more Saturnian to my ear. McPhee plays long lines on both sax and trumpet, ending with a passage that really evokes Ayler at his full-blown gospel-wailing best. “Delta,” meanwhile, is more of a free-funk composition, with military band overtones. Spanking!

Nation Time is a quintet date, recorded at the same December 1970 concert at Vassar that would yield the Black Magic Man LP. But where that one was a free jazz blowing session, the three tunes on this one are less easily defined. The line-up is McPhee on tenor and trumpet, Kull on piano, Tyrone Crabb on bass and trumpet, and both Ernest Bostic and Bruce Thompson on percussion. At the time this recording was made, McPhee was teaching a class at Vassar called “Revolution in Sound” and the title-track here is both dedicated to Amiri Baraka and named after one of his calls to arms. “Nation Time” has a familiar structure and feel, not unlike a cross between Coltrane's later bands stretch-out and those of Ra's smaller ensembles. Rhythmic and circular, with its basic groove punctured by long blown lines or (even sometimes) guttural shouts, it's an exceedingly warm gust of sound. The quintet swells to an octet for the next track, “Shakey Jake,” adding Otis Greene on alto sax, Herbie Lehman on organ and Dave Jones on electric guitar. All of the implied groove of “Nation Time” becomes the feature here. It's a merger of R&B and free jazz that succeeds where a lot of subsequent stuff, designed to function along similar lines, did not. The expanded ensemble manages to really balance the elements well -- as solid in its way as contemporary efforts by Miles or Fela. The final piece, “Scorpio's Dance,” returns us to the basic quintet and is a nice, clattery piece to go out on.

Underground Railroad by the Joe McPhee Quartet was recorded in April 1969 and dedicated “to the black experience on the planet earth.” Its cover is a black and white drawing that resembles some of the sketchbook work Robert Crumb did when he was experimenting with speed, and the playing is fiery and free. The band is McPhee on trumpet and tenor, Reggie Marks on tenor, flute and soprano, Tyrone Crabb on bass, and Ernest Bostic doubling on percussion and vibes. Marks is particularly ferocious in his twin tenor playing against McPhee, but everyone is great here. Bostic lays down roaring rolls of thunder, Crabb (especially on his arco work) calls to mind the odd foundation-inventions of Alan Silva and McPhee's trumpet fractures time and space. The title track is one of the less-well-known monsters of the genre -- fully formed and aggressive in all the best ways. On the flip, where Bostic switches to vibes for one track, “Harriet” is pretty spacey until it ends in a sweet blur of horn and reed. The last cut, “Message from Denmark” (dedicated to Denmark Vesey, leader of an 1822 slave rebellion in South Carolina), is another wonderfully layered performance, with reed, horns and rhythms all shifting around in unexpected ways, with savage power and grace. It's somewhat odd that McPhee's debut as a leader sounds so mature. After all, he'd only been on one recording session prior to this -- a single track on Clifford Thornton's great 1967 date, Freedom & Unity, on Third World Records. But apparently, McPhee was ready for anything. This is a fact he's proven time and again over the last 45 years, but it's very cool these formational blocks in his discography are available again. They sound totally great. And now I can auction off my originals!

Win. Win.

--Byron Coley

* Excepting, perhaps, the 1971 LP Brother to Brother on Yoke Free, which only Mats Gustafsson ever seems to have heard

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