Joe McPhee, Chris Corsano, Cube July 23
Seems to be easier to allow gigs to pass unrecorded just now – (like this blog’s last recommendation at the Coronation Tap, though that was written up beautifully by Mike Collins so that’s OK). But this evening at the Cube keeps coming back into my mind almost a week after the event, which must mean it is worth a few words.
I’ve not listened to Joe Mcphee much, more heard the name than heard him play, and own nothing on record – not that unusual for a veteran player who has a high reputation but a low profile. So this turned out to one of those supremely pleasant surprises when what you have heard does not prepare you for the impact of the live playing.
He takes a lot from Ornette, which isn’t always a good thing. I love Coleman possibly more than any other musician but those who emulate him usually suffer from not owning his melodic genius. The few successful players who dig deeply into his sound – Charles Brackeen the shining example – have had sadly low-level careers. McPhee, now in his early 70s, adds a large helping of Albert Ayler to the blend, as well as leaning close to Don Cherry when he swaps sax for pocket trumpet, and achieves a brilliant synthesis of the giants of the early 60s avant garde. He mainly plays in that fertile area where free jazz plays close attention to its roots – real roots: spirituals and field hollers are hinted at in between the free blowing episodes. It is a wonderfully energising and affecting mix. The playing uses all the sounds – breath passing through the instruments without making a tone, the clack of the saxophone keys, as well as a lot of variation in tone – an almost Ben Websterish softness at times giving way to Ayler shrieks and wails. This goes with constant shifts in mood and a steady flow of ideas. No, he isn’t a melodic genius on Ornette’s level, and no doubt develops his mainly motivic improvisations from similar figures on other nights. But he has a wonderful command of the whole tradition, and can move from complex runs to simple figures which seem to sum up a whole portion of the music’s history in a phrase.
This kind of thing needs a partner, and the wonderfully skilled percussionist Chris Corsano – a much younger player who McPhee has played with regularly – was perfect. He’s got everything, touch, dynamics, invention, acute reflexes. McPhee sounds good in other company (item: a duo CD with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten I took home), but with Corsano on stage he sounds fantastic.
It needs an audience, too. That sometimes happens down at the Cube, sometimes not. This time it did! The place was pretty much full on a steamy Monday night. We were moved by the music, the players felt the response. “We feel the love”, said our man on sax. That looks trite to type. But we really did.
We left grateful to QuJunktions for bringing these guys to Bristol, and hoping they can return. Meanwhile, there is acres of Joe McPhee to explore on record. Excellent.