For the closing concert of the season of the Boston Creative Music Alliance, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Joe McPhee and Trio X performed two sets. The members of the Trio are Joe McPhee on brass and reeds, Dominic Duval on electrified string bass and Jay Rosen on drums and percussion.
The Trio began with a blast of abstract sound larger and more aggressive than can be imagined coming from three musicians. McPhee had his tenor; he stood in the middle of the slick black stage. Duval was on the right, Rosen was on the left. Duval fanned the hell out of the strings on the upper neck of the bass. Rosen attacked his full drum set.
All of the music was an array of bridging between lilting melodies and seemingly chaotic out of step, off beat, off-line sounds. The remarkable quality of this seeming chaos is that it stayed together. The players knew how to listen to each other. Each could judge the temperament of the other. Each had his own medium and stretched it to its limits. The music the group played moved from the totally conceptual to the blues, to bebop, to Rodgers & Hart compositions . The extremes were unquestionable. It is the dynamic in between the extremes that makes Trio X itself.
Rosen’s talent exudes in his approach to the components of his drumset; he can create sound that is huge and in the next moment, sound that is extremely tiny. He knows when to rise to the occasion with the unquestionable strike of his standing cymbal, which sounds like a dampened gong, and lower the decibels with a detailed manipulation of the dozen or so cymbals that are six inches in diameter or less. He is equally as succinct in his choice of stick to play the skins and cymbals. His rhythmic acuity is more noticeable to me than ever; the coherence of his jamming is terrific. This perception of Rosen’s playing contrasts to my first encounter with him in concert when his drumset did not compare in capacity.
Duval preaches on his bass; he is adamant, bold; his intentions are wide. His playing is more personal than I remember it being in the past. He possesses a variety of technical means. He plays the instrument like a guitar or a cello; he slaps the wood body; he bends over backwards to bend pitches; his bowing impels dissonance and continuity. He plucks the strings carefully over the shape of the neck of the instrument or strokes them so rapidly near the bridge that the sound that emanates can be perpetual. The fingers of his left hand can move down the strings in a split second to change the pitch. He can move from time-keeping to jaggedness with ease.
Then, there is the free radical....McPhee. His versatility on many instruments addresses the nature of unpredictability in his playing and his staunch desire to constantly discover what can come next. McPhee carries with him a vocabulary that is definitely his own (as do also Rosen and Duval). This vocabulary is put into effect in his approaches to playing the meanest tenor as is demonstrated in the largeness of the stringing together of the most disjointed phrasings of notes and, then, antithetically, in the most tender shaping of pocket trumpet or soprano sax in tunes like MY FUNNY VALENTINE. This tune was performed in this gig on flugelhorn & pocket trumpet in a straight ahead statement of the melody juxtaposed to cantankerous, grumpy, sour and tempestuous lines which can only underline the melancholy fluidity of the standard tune.
McPhee also exercises his vocabulary in series of ostinatos which method of playing not only takes his breath away but also mine. He plays arpeggios, trills & scale runs in the same way. Each note is clear even when it is meant to be split with another or is combined with his voice through a reed or valve. The last piece of the concert, McPhee played the soprano sax. The piece was brief and mostly valved air. Several times, notes in the form of squeaks came out of the horn. But the piece was mostly air. It was glorious.
And, of course, with all the musicians is the erudite application of the pause. The sigh in between the next note. This fullness of silence encapsulates the wholeness of the music. There is no discontinuity. Each moment is meaningful. The distance between the last textural statements made by the Trio and Duval’s thumb going across a string of his bass to close the piece is one of those moments.
At the finish of the concert, the three musicians came together on stage. Each applauded each other, embraced each other, and eventually turned and faced the audience with smiles on their faces. The audience applauded the Trio. The three men had produced music that was completely unexpected. They had risen to the challenge of what improvised music is: a process of becoming.