Joe McPhee’s newest release on CIMP, IN THE SPIRIT, embodies the strengths of all the players who accompany him. Joe has played with the members of his double "bluettes" many times. Perhaps this CD is the one that upholds the inherent nature of the talents of the musicians recorded on it: McPhee on soprano and tenor saxophones, Giardullo on flute, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, and Duval and Bisio on their basses. Truly, the fact that Joe chosen to render this CD totally about the spiritual has everything to do with his tapping an incessant, unrelenting passion which is his destiny to express musically. The way in which his celebration of the mystery of the spirit has metamorphosed into the beings of the remaining players is quite remarkable. There is not one cut here that leaves me dry-eyed.
These four musicians have recorded an outstanding CD. In Ellington’s COME SUNDAY, Giardullo plays the bass clarinet, stretching the instrument’s limits to the point that it sounds like a didgeridoo, in a long overture that precedes the melody which enters with a bass and the soprano sax. Bisio and Duval dominate this piece with long bowings. The group improvises more than plays the tune; the tune is scattered throughout, picked up here and there by the horns and ended by the horns. In GOD BLESS THE CHILD, McPhee NEVER leaves the tune behind. (It is one of his favorites.) The tune’s unmistakable identity is there and there and there; Dominic can very easily separate himself from the soprano sax and come back, because Joe stands firm. Joe Giardullo enters towards the middle to embellish the brass. The basses supply a gentle backdrop and singular solos to create a rendition of this Billie Holiday song that is unforgettable. The reentrance of McPhee on soprano and Giardullo on soprano as well supplies an ending where harmonics are posed in phrases, and all instruments close the song in a descending scale.
Giardullo casts a spell in PEOPLE GET READY with his flute. McPhee has elevated the song to hymn status by putting it on this recording. Interestingly enough, however, Joe selected it presciently, given Mayfield’s death a couple of weeks ago. Joe’s interpretation of the piece emphasizes a striving for unity that was a part of Mayfield’s sensibility.
McPhee’s original ASTRAL SPIRITS is a mixture of coherence, with subtle interjections of hymn-like melodies, and total abandonment of structure. The piece disappears in the squeak of the soprano sax as if to fall into a black hole or off the edge of the universe---dissipated energy, never to be retrieved. Each of two traditional hymns open and close the CD. DEEP RIVER and JUST A CLOSER WALK WITH THEE carry great harmonic weight. The group moves in and out of the harmony and a balance is struck between that which repeatedly rings with a penetrating sonorous glory and that which is tangentially dissonant, but consistent with the predominant melodies. In the latter hymn, an especially vivid performance by the basses buoying a deep tenor sax drone creates an image of black-suited instrumentalists swaying in unison down Bourbon Street.
Joe McPhee never fails to hold the thread that binds these six works together for the reason that they are embedded in him; they are a part of his entire life. Joe has no trouble conveying the musical idea of the spiritual. Joe is the spirit.