|The uniqueness of certain recordings cries out instantly, while others seem similar to a lot of others in aspects including title, instrumentation, repertoire, concept, even the recording techniques employed. When an album falls into the latter category it then requires some kind of an extra boost in order to garner the attention it merits. Such is the case with Manhattan Tango, a duet recording featuring Joe McPhee and Jérôme Bourdellon which by virtue of appearing on a small French label might already have gone unnoticed even if it had documented the second coming of Christ.
Starting with the title, it is certainly more than the second coming for the borough of Manhattan as an inspirational setting and theme for improvised music. When album titles in other genres are additionally factored in, it seems like Manhattan could claim status as the recording-title capitol of the world. McPhee and Bourdellon present eight improvised pieces as a Manhattan Tango; record buyers have already been offered a Manhattan panorama, cascade, minuet, bridge, ego, echo, blues, Autumn, nocturne, project, cycle, fantasy, mood, morning, melody and more. Some of these inspirations were even offered in plural, as if the artists responsible were expecting a large demand. There have also been lots of recordings involving McPhee in different collaborative settings. There are lots of recordings of duets involving horn players from the brass and woodwind families, in any and all perceivable combination. Specifically, there are also lots of recordings of McPhee in such settings. There are lots of recordings of European and American masters from the free improvisation scene meeting to improvise in duet. McPhee is also involved in many such settings, being a frequent traveler to Europe on-tour — in this instance, however, the European came to America to perform and record with McPhee. Which brings us back to Manhattan, site of many location recordings in roomy lofts with ultra-high ceilings. Indeed, so much use has been made of lofts for alternative music presentations that in the '70s and '80s there was even a style of jazz known as "loft" jazz.
McPhee was considered a "loft" jazz player in that period simply because these were the only type of venues that he could have been booked at. The use of such spaces to record actually had something of an impact on the changing sound of jazz recordings, a good place to begin lavishing praise on Manhattan Tango in the hope of establishing how special it is. Sounds swirl and float around such spaces, the ceilings creating a reservoir of reverb that, for some sets, was simply a swamp. One drum hit by Andrew Cyrille at the start of a "loft" jazz set and the audience could conceivably still be trying to get it out of their ears hours later when the band is packing up. For McPhee and Bourdellon's combination of instruments, however, the sound of the room is simply fantastic, creating a richness that would simply not be possible using any kind of reverb-recording equipment available, analog, digital or magical.
McPhee uses only his pocket trumpet, sometimes in conjunction with his voice, for which he is also credited. The flautist has both bass and piccolo range instruments to augment the woefully under-used sound of the normal flute in this type of musical adventure. Perhaps the flute, properly played, simply sounds too beautiful for a genre in which a well-defined squeak is considered a sign of craftsmanship. Probably already thoroughly enjoying his trip to New York City, the bon homme with the flute here has the benefit of a collaborator whose technical command seems totally suited to the task at-hand, at all times, and for all time. McPhee's pocket trumpet is such a perfect partner for the flute — two ponies meet in an enchanted forest, two pitches are matched so adroitly it would make an old music teacher smile. The opening "Business Hour" is almost too good, unfortunately, such a grand acknowledgement of how well these two will play together in this circumstance and how great it will sound that the listener may emerge spent after less than five minutes, unwilling to endure any more.
Liner notes by John F. Szwed, the author of several excellent books on important modern jazz figures, in part discuss the reasons the duo configuration of horns has indeed been utilized with such frequency. For Szwed, the instrumentation constitutes an ideal setting in which improvisation can really become free. He is correct in the strict sense that there is no jazz rhythm section sitting there. Freedom, however, becomes the only real problem for players in a setting such as this. Their constraints include their imaginations, which seem boundless throughout these thrilling tandems, speaking technically or in terms of how the instrumentalists create striking sound events. The way the imagination of the two individuals meshes and what that mesh represents is at the heart of each of these pieces. "Pearls for Swine" comes after the aforementioned too-perfect opening, beginning as if the players were boldly striking out new territory and relationships with previous accomplishments still glowing in the background. McPhee's vocalizing can be interpreted as an aggressive act of freedom, spinning the top in contrary motion. Tension develops, as it typically might at such a gig, the music seeming to be wandering until the two somehow make a phrase together — a staggering, halting, gasping of breath that illogically seems beautiful. "White Street" comes out of a sub-genre within the previously described annals of "loft" jazz and/or Manhattan recording references.
These are performances named after streets or even addresses within the city so nice they had to name it twice. In this case, the opening section comes across as so distant it sounds a bit like the players are wandering in off the streets themselves. Bourdellon sets off a car alarm at around two-and-a-half-minutes, which some flautists do by sticking their little finger in and out of one end of their instruments. McPhee's reaction to this is typical of every day of his career: he immediately comes up with several really interesting ideas, all totally in compliment to the setting. A truly sublime section a bit later in this piece works through such a traditional notion of music-making that it seems at odds with the ideas presented in the liner notes — which perhaps adds up to as good an example of freedom as any. Here the performers decide they will play with something simple, together, a four-note motif introduced by the flute, turned into filigree by McPhee, then reinforced in the trumpeter's second inspiration concerning procedure. He flings a little extra note in here and there during ensuing repetition of the phrase, the flute and the trumpet holding together in the vast-sounding warmth of the loft.