Joe McPhee/Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten – Brooklyn DNA Clean Feed (CF 244)
Joe McPhee Trio First Date (CJR-8)
Persistent in his exploration of fresh musical currents in the improvised tradition, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee remains indefatigable 46 years after his first recording and as he settles into his eighth decade. Comfortably conversant in any sized ensemble, from his justly renowned solo discs to his long-time membership in Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, the Poughkeepsie, New York resident usually does his most profound work in smaller configurations. Take these high-quality CDs, recorded at four different years.
First Date is significant because its first three tracks are the primary recording by McPhee’s still extant touring band, Trio X, consisting of himself on saxophones and pocket trumpet, bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. The final track captures the trio in concert six years later. Recorded in 2011, Brooklyn DNA matches the multi-instrumentalist with resourceful Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten, who now resides in Austin. Dedicated to New York’s second most storied borough and its comprehensive Jazz history, this is more of a so-called Jazz record than the more experimental other one, recorded live at New York’s third annual Vision Festival.
First Date is more experimental for the simple reason that McPhee, Duval and Rosen didn’t expect this gig would turn into a long-time arrangement, and throughout you can hear the three trying out assorted strategies and narratives. There’s also a question of balance. While Duval, who has worked with no problem alongside saxophonists as individual as Ivo Perelman and Charles Gayle immediately sets up rapprochement with McPhee similar to Jimmy Garrison with John Coltrane or David Izenzon with Ornette Coleman, initially Rosen seems left out of the equation. This situation is only rectified when the saxophonist’s New Thing-like bites and cries and the bassist’s pumping whorls subside into mid-range so that Rosen’s more restrained percussion patterns are heard. With the subtlety of a recital percussionist, the drummer fastens on textures that can be vibrated, including bell ringing, hi-hat slapping and cymbal shaking. He stays true to this formula even when McPhee digs deeply into his soprano saxophone’s innards, pushing discordant reed tessitura to the limit before settling into unforeseen reed bites and multiphonics. Duval continues his role with a combination of harsh scrubs and rappels up-and-down his strings while Rosen’s contributes infrequent pops and some whistle blowing. Eventually the piece concludes.
Rosen’s percussion is just as restrained but resourceful as well in the Rochester, N.Y. set from 2004. Although his texture of choice appears to be the delicate plink of finger cymbals, he’s more upfront throughout with clanks and clicks from drum top and sides plus cymbal shakes. Duval too is more assertive slapping strings and bowing them in the lowest pitch, while McPhee advances the instant composition with gouts of contrapuntal glossolalia, emotional squeals and staccato freneticism, followed every step of the way by the bassist’s ragged arpeggios and the drummer’s smacks. In tandem with a pulsating bass solo, McPhee signals the ending while exploring every nuance of a secondary spiritual-like variant which combines rhythm and lyricism.
Duval’s brawny interaction is matched by the measured and powerful strokes of Håker-Flaten on the other CD. Håker-Flaten, who regularly interacts with saxophone heavy hitters such as Frode Gjerstad and Mats Gustafsson, demonstrates his inventiveness throughout. He outputs a thick carpet of passing chords to meet McPhee more outré reed excursions; or has spidery string slithers at his finger tips when the themes turn near-romantic.
Tunes such as “Blue Coronet” and “214 Martens”, respectively celebrating the legendary Brooklyn Jazz haunt and the late tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, indicate the duality. The latter includes the two players challenging one another with contrapuntal altissimo reed cries and slashing string slaps at the top and sharp violent horn vibrations plus continuous string whapping as the finale; with McPhee pushing out a half-imaginary Redman like melody in the middle. A combination of honk and hyperbole McPhee’s alto saxophone solo on “Blue Coronet” appropriately salutes many of the Jazzers who gigged at the club. With matter-of-fact strumming from Håker-Flaten his anchor, he moves from expressive, late-night abstractions to a touch of straight-ahead blowing.
“Enoragt Maeckt Haght” brings out some of the most abstract yet affective playing on the date, with the bassist pinching his strings near the scroll before outputting double and triple stopped notes while the saxophonist moves from deep inside the body tube growls and upwards stretching bugle-like tones to reach strident reed bites and tongue slaps that make perfect sense alongside the bassist’s narrative.
The most telling piece however may be the final one, “Here and Now”. Here the two are transported to the 21st Century with an exposition mixing powerful bass slaps and alto sax note clusters that gradually attains new balance as the composition speeds up. Finally harsh bent notes from both result in a satisfactory tandem ending.
More proof – if any is needed – that at 73 plus McPhee continuous to operate at top form, no matter his partners in sound.