At the ICA in Boston, A Band With No Name became the moniker during the show for a performance of a group that included Joe Morris, on upright acoustic bass, Joe McPhee on brass and reeds, Ken Vandermark on saxophones & clarinet, Nate McBride on bass as well, and Luther Gray on drums. The two basses and drums provided a rhythm section that became an organic component unto itself and additionally built a foundation that was only the beginning of how the music proceeded. The front line of Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark exhibited vital energy, wisdom and thrust. McPhee was on the left of the stage and Vandermark was on the right. The electricity between them was without rival.
Although McPhee often stood to the side and listened, watched and absorbed Vandermark’s incredible wielding of his horns, McPhee had plenty to say in solo moments. He personifies a deep assimilation of his musical experience. He knows when to play and when not to play. He knows exactly what instrument to chose to complement and contrast and then merge with his counterpart. On his own, McPhee produced a maze of silken blues lines entwined with stark sometimes downright squawky pitches on his soprano sax. On the bass clarinet he created slow, languid lines, and then arched up to the high register changing intervals with the switch to remain consistent with the musical painting. On the flugelhorn, which he used often in this session, he brightened the canvas of the whole band with the liquidity of the lines he plays. The best way for me to think about McPhee’s playing the sax and the horn is to focus on how he controls the distinction between separation of pitches and the pulling together of pitches into a melody, when he is using instruments that quite plainly are structured on a binary open-shut valve system. This capacity for musicianship renders McPhee, McPhee.
Vandermark burned a hole in the stage with his performance on baritone saxophone. It seemed to hold forth as his instrument of choice out of three --the bari, tenor, or clarinet. The tenacity and ferocity with which he delivered an onslaught of ostinatos, especially in the first number of the first set, was enough to make me scream so loudly at the concluding grand outage of sound that McPhee appeared startled as well as was the gentleman sitting next to me. Being enthralled by the constancy and the drive of Vandermark’s participation in this group nearly overwhelmed the subtlety of the group’s constituency. But this subtlety was retrieved by the delicate and soft tunes he later played on the clarinet. Vandermark has become so exquisitely charged and well-rounded in his sound since I first heard him play years ago. He captures a groove easily and stays with the groove, no matter how abstract, until he has reached the critical mass. That is a reason he speaks his music clearly and with identification. McPhee and Vandermark work well together. Either may go out on a limb, but eventually, the two stabilize each other with an evenness that is attributable to their sensitivity to one another.
Moving to the back of the stage. Morris on bass was interesting; he does not have the same kind of command over this instrument as he does his guitars. The bass seemed too big for him to handle. Several times he played near the center close to the bridge of the bass like he plays his guitar- completely in the center of the sounding board. Yet, mostly, he attended to staying in the parallel with McBride and Gray so that the three could support McPhee and Vandermark. In the second set, McBride took off in a terrific solo using the bow. He produced a huge sound and nailed his strong and solid voice. Predominantly throughout the performance, Gray stayed in the center of his set. Sticks and brushes played his wider that I am used to hi-hats and snare. He kept the hi-hats tight. In fact, the resonance emanating from the drums was limited. Gray’s sound was essentially dry, but full and irreplaceable for completing the whole ensemble.
The eloquence of each member of this Band with No Name blended to a T. Always just right. The peaks, the surges, the depth of tones. Everything made sense; the pieces of the puzzle all fit together in every number. Worth each minute of listening. Wow. The silver lining.