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When Content becomes the Form

Saturday night, in Rosendale, NY, that wisp of a town near the Hudson, three members of Joe McPhee's Bluette, Joe Giardullo, Michael Bisio, and Joe, himself, continued no doubt in the same musical vein as they had been while at the Guelph Jazz Festival just a day before.

It does not take much on the part of the listener except the willingness to listen in order to hear the breadth , sincerity, commitment and beauty in the music that these three musicians played.

Described as an example of an interpretation of spirituals, particularly in relation to the memory of Paul Robeson, African American singer, whose tremorous bass voice penetrated one's very being, the first work's musical theme moved in and out of improvisational variety, gentleness & furor to culminate in the clear unobliterated statement of the melody of OLD MAN RIVER. To arrive at that place, ascending and descending scalar harmonies came through sax, flute, clarinets and flugelhorn to shape the overture to the main body of the piece. Bisio provided a solid steady stream of tone emanating from the bow that rode across the bass strings at the bridge of the stringboard. So many reed harmonies sounded midst fanning of the bass strings that the harmonies themselves became a mainstay of the improvisation whence the two horns flanking the bass could diverge easily and be off the thematic line only to return later to another harmonic moment. McPhee struck a march on the flugelhorn towards the end of the piece as if to announce the incoming summation of the entire work. The tenor sax replaced the flugelhorn. Strong, beautifully phrased strings of notes, which at one point became a song through the squeaking reed, imploded into a changing range of ostinatos. Giardullo met up with the tenor on his bass clarinet. The The string bass hung on one long deep tone as the tenor provided the last chorus of the piece.

Giardullo and McPhee followed with a soprano saxophone duet that rang with harmonies as well. Each soprano intercepted the other creating a texture as one tune looped into the other's tune such that together the saxes produced a unified complete sonority.

Bisio followed with Coleman's LONELY WOMAN, a rendition which seemed rare, yet was in fact well appointed. The tones structured the tune through the duration of the bow's stroke across the strings. Sometimes, the bow stroke was adamant and with method. The climax approached with the tones moving in extremes: Bisio's right-hand fingers high on the neck of the instrument, the bow low on the strings next to the bridge. He circled the bow over the strings as if to make love to his solitude, then he scraped the strings into chunks of sound. As he held the bass with his right knee, his fingers began to rattle the strings to make high pitches; his fingers flew on top of the strings and moved into a glissando. He stroked with the bow vigorously. The vigor changed to hymn like ardor. The bow rotated over the strings. The number was over.

In the last piece, Giardullo was playing alto sax and McPhee was on tenor. The bass sustained deep tones. The piece began as harmonic parallel lines. The alto rang out with split tones and maintained a continuity off which McPhee grabbed at groups of deep sounding phrases which eventually became lighter, quicker, repeated. Giardullo squeaked into stringently blowing the tune between split tones and whole notes. Bisio plucked, stretching the strings apart, then squeezing them together. NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I'VE SEEN came through but with a phrase that resembled the main theme of SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD. Bisio fanned the bass strings hard enough to make the sound come across like the pounding of a tympani as McPhee held a never-ending vibrato. With that depth of sound came the re-entry of the spiritual. Giardullo held a high pitch as McPhee did a mid-range tone that cascaded down and up; Giardullo followed with a low pitch. Bisio plucked with a back beat; gradually the pizzicato widened . Giardullo played the flute, then pressed air through a soprano sax without a mouth piece. McPhee elongated the melodic body and sang through the reed; he was playing one note at a time to once again construct the tune. Giardullo and McPhee played the same pitch. Then Giardullo pitched air. The pizzicato stopped.

At the beginning of the set, a couple next to me inquired about what they were in for with the question: Is this music based on recognizable form? To which I replied: What music isn't? Which answer leads to thoughts about how McPhee's groups are redesigning traditional forms. These forms are being inverted, stretched, prolonged, rolled over, held together, made coherent and comforting all at the same time. The music is based in the idea that the melody does not make up the song; the musicians do.

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