Joe McPhee

Drummer Randy Kaye brought together, in an unusual setting for improvisational music, bassist Richard Downs, reed players Joe Giardullo and Joe McPhee. This gig, juxtaposed with listening to the Hat Hut reissue on CD of McPhee’s first solo album TENOR, brought to light an understanding of McPhee’s playing heretofore unrealizable.

The focus of Joe’s music is to strike a balance between structure and expression. These are polarities in the musical world. The distance between them allows for a myriad of possibilities within the same space. Structure is built on a foundation of recognizable elements such as a melody line, a rhythm and a basis for improvisation. In Joe’s case, he has fashioned that foundation in knowing what the history of jazz music sounds like and also in a specific non-musical philosophy. A philosophy whose backbone is positive, forward motion. Pain and suffering is laid to rest. Spirituality is the drive.

Musical expressionism has a structure within itself; it leaves from one place and often comes back to that place, even if that place is a stopping point. The musical expressionism is the improvisation. Joe’s improvisational technique has always been developing, has always been consistent & thoughtful within itself, and has always had direction. This is the means for all great music composition whether notated or sketched or intuited through improvisation. One must not forget that "composed" music has as much improvisation associated with it as does jazz. The very act of composing is an act of improvising: classical lines rise, fall, and rise again to conclusion. Intuition motivates the classical music composer as much as it does the jazz musician, standing there alone playing an instrument spontaneously, musically searching for directions in which to go. Joe always finds those directions, beautifully, sensibly, inimitably, behaving as a fulcrum, going from comfort zones to unknown territory. That territory is simultaneously so tentative and so unbearably seized.

What Joe does in his music making personifies the creative process, bears witness to going to extremes, but also, to falling into place where the new sound elements being dealt with are collected and ordered to a certain degree. This ordering does not limit any part of a particular musical development; in fact, the limits that are established in the ordering become Joe’s recognizable techniques which serve to enhance the development of the original musical statement. The places that Joe takes the music are reached by emotions, by experience, by the desire to feel whole with everything that is and isn't. Within one piece, Joe comes full circle to rest within the spirit which is pure energy, encapsulated in THIS life only briefly---to radiate out with no attachment, to become one with the universal soul--- as the air blown through a valved tube of metal, frequently, the saxophone.

The concert at the Zinc Cafe in Lenox, Massachusetts, exhibited the nature of the aforementioned balancing, but, in a way that prevailed in the differences between the kind of playing the musicians manifested . Randy Kaye, drummer formerly for the Jimmy Giuffre quartet, and Richard Downs, a bassist from the area, demonstrated their orientation to a conservative, heavy pulse. Whereas, in contrast, Joe Giardullo and Joe McPhee (who are well acquainted with how each plays) can exercise complete freedom of expression and abandonment of structure.

The first set of this gig began with Randy’s setting a slow tempo, with the bass drum, his soft wrists controlling the way his hands held the brushes to make rounds on the toms, snare and cymbals. There were occasional grunts and a smack or two on the snare. Richard followed on the bass. Giardullo began on the flute and McPhee on the soprano sax, fluid bright notes midst a couple of trills to valving reduced to clicking as the notice for the pace to quicken. The flute and maracas offered an atmosphere. McPhee stood to the side holding his soprano like a baby. Richard plucked out a steady deep and constant beat. Randy hit his drumstick on the metal frame of the snare. The two Joe’s rang out flute and soprano together. McPhee tremoloed, Giardullo backed his horn-playing friend. Mallets hit the cymbals and the musicians moved into a slow melody. Richard brought out his sousaphone and naturally fell into a march which Randy complemented with the drums. Giardullo practically spit into his flute. McPhee went out on a melancholy note. The flute went on, McPhee tapped his foot readying for another intersection with the flute which grabbed to shape a melody at which point McPhee went out of the structure in a flutter. The cymbals hushed, the hi-hat clicked. McPhee’s soprano pierced the air. The music became an all brass march which stopped on one note.

The drums continued. The rhythm was tight. The sticks snapped and smacked on the toms & snare. Randy hammered the bass drum. McPhee opened his soprano to solo Amazing Grace. Richard maintained a beat by plucking the strings of his bass; he eventually began to bow the strings to lift the music across another bridge. Brushes vibrated the drum heads. Giardullo picked up his queues from the strings. McPhee picked up his tenor. The pace sped up. Randy snapped the cymbals and came back to the tom. The rhythm of the tune never left even though each instrument seemed to go its own way. McPhee’s tenor followed a line; a phrase on Amazing Grace snuck in; Giardullo’s flute inherited McPhee’s line; the bass dropped out. The tenor’s line remained slow. There were gentle exchanges between Giardullo’s flute and Richard’s muted trumpet. McPhee stood and watched, then moved; he reentered in unison with the flute. The flute & trumpet were out. McPhee held onto long notes, made one transition after another, established a mellifluous melody that spoke a beat every once in a while and then went out. Randy and Richard fell into a strikingly traditional jazz rhythm. Giardullo played his soprano deep into itself. The tempo was quicker. Randy did not stop playing; he chewed gum as he shot rat-a-tats. McPhee sat down; he tapped his foot and finger tips. Giardullo valved into the quick pace. McPhee came back in with a slow melody that he pumped up again. The cymbals began to sound like Tibetan singing bowls. McPhee put his tenor down. The heavy bass & drum rhythm combination ushered in the two Joe’s. McPhee played at half Giardullo’s pace. All of the musicians moved into a downbeat. They were all together. The drums never missed; they were hit precisely and well. Giardullo went off on his own temporarily. The bass crept lower and lower in tone. McPhee’s soprano traced some previously played notes. Randy spanked the drums. The soprano raised the pitch. And in three notes, McPhee carried the music out.

It was important to listen to the second set of the gig. I wanted to hear it in the context of the strange mixture of straight out rhythm and free spirit. A penetrating African pulse teeter-tottered with the tickling of the saxophones. The group eventually progressed their way into the blues countering the African introduction. The two Joe’s continued to blend well with each on their instruments. McPhee took the group out with one long note at the end of a brief rendition of Bessie’s Blues.

TENOR & FALLEN ANGELS (the latter previously unreleased material) speaks of the discovery of free spirit growing out of the traditional. Originally recorded in 1978, this music demonstrates how Joe McPhee took a step out on his own, became rebellious, went from one spiritual calling to another. This music shows his experiment being taken inside and made consciously inherent.

The methods Joe uses here are seminal; they resemble each other but project differences dependent on where they appear in the whole. This CD shows the incipient language he created for himself that he continues to draw on, expand on, push, form, reform, decorate, deconstruct, reconstruct, erase and replay. The ever-broadening dimensions of the musical map are being measured. But the roads on the map are made only when it is time to make them. The topography is the technique: the indelible dissonances, squeaks, arpeggiation, valving, tremolos, trills, repetitions, the lingering on the familiar, the never-wanting-to-leave-the-music. His music conjures up visual images, other aural images, melancholic moments, solemn moments, meditative moments, moments that transcend the time in which they exist because another group of notes might follow, even if they are silent.

Joe’s technical abilities then and now ravish the horn he plays. His sound was, and has expanded more into, a strong, constant, reliably present one. Joe is not retrospective in his playing. He has become his musical experience not through imitation but through assimilation, inspiration and practice.

TENOR & FALLEN ANGELS has been re-released by Hat Hut, #544, as part of their 25th anniversary celebration.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Joe McPhee
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