|Notes I drove through a hurricane to hear Joe McPhee. It was 1985 and he was on tour with his partners from Marseilles, France: guitarist Raymond Boni, saxophonist and clarinetist Andre Jaumé and dancer Genvieve Sorin (replacing bassist François Mechali, who was detained visaless at the border). Travel advisories warned to stay safe at home, but I fought the gale and drove my VW Rabbit the hour-long schlep from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, Massachusetts, where, as part of a weird, important little creative music series at a neighborhood bar called Charlie’s Tap, Joe McPhee Po Music conjured weather patterns of their own design, making us forget the whipping wind and the inevitable, unenviable trip home.
There weren’t more than six of us in the audience that night, nor the next, but among the few others to brave the storm was Ken Vandermark’s father. Stu Vandermark has long been one of Beantown’s most astute listeners and a dedicated free-music gadfly. In fact, I met him long before I did his son, though Ken and I are roughly the same age. Ken first heard McPhee through his dad, who hipped him to the superb solo record Tenor (one of several early records that languish in the vinyl graveyard, never yet reissued by hat ART). That music had a transformative influence on Vandermark-the-younger; Ken was awed by McPhee’s ability to sustain free-flowing, hard-blowing energy and at the same time effectively deal with elegance, lyricism and melodicism — a seemingly incompatible compound of materials.
McPhee has a unique sense of openness (overused, disabused word that it is), not in that he plays more crazily or noisily or unpredictably or aggressively or proficiently than anyone else, but in his willingness to engage. Many a free musician could learn a thing or two from him about collaboration, process, the unfolding of music in real time. Indeed, from his home base in Poughkeepsie, New York, McPhee has built a large network of continuing and more ephemeral collaborations. But what’s amazing is that, despite having been the sole inspiration for the formation of hat Hut records and having played steadily for more than 25 years, McPhee is still chronically underexposed. For instance, when he came to play at the Empty Bottle in February, 1996, it was his first performance ever in Chicago. And quite an event it was: packed house, quiet as church mice, listening closely as McPhee began with an intensely challenging solo set, much of it consisting of unvoiced breath blown past and over the mouthpiece of tenor and pocket trumpet. Some players would have gone for more instantly gratifying, comfortable music. But Joe’s not into fast food; he prefers something you can savor, something that takes time to digest, to reveal itself. And like I said, McPhee is open — he can quickly suss out a situation and take it to its limit, confident but unerringly willing. In the second set, the music moved into a somewhat different realm. Still challenging, but also elegiac, stirring, warm, melodious, communal, at times tinged with the McPhee melancholy — Vandermark and Kessler teamed up with Joe to create one of the most beautiful hours of listening I can recall.
Afterwards, Vandermark remarked on McPhee’s incredible pitch choice, the fact that he knows exactly where to go to precisely inflect a given moment. It’s true: in improvised music, when harmonic material appears it often has the aleatory feel of people shooting in the dark, hoping to hit a plausible interval. But with McPhee the harmonies are very deliberate, often extremely surprising and always somehow right on. This is a characteristic of Vandermark and Kessler, too, something that years of working together in a wide range of contexts — particularly in the free setting of their trio with drummer Hamid Drake — has allowed them to deeply explore. Shape, not grope. Form, not sprawl. Attention, not blurt.
Happily the sound that transpired when they stormed the studio the afternoon before the concert verifies my hyperbolic prose, and there’s a record here to prove it. Hours before their first public statement, the threesome privately anticipated the glow of the gig, creating a hot spot in which to work and setting an awfully high standard for them to match. What happened began as a process of open interaction. No egoism or heroics, nothing to prove. And though it may have been their first encounter, there’s hardly a precious or tentative move. A Meeting in Chicago is a common building project, built block-upon-block through a series of solos, duos and trios — the end product more or less programmed exactly as played. Two winds and bass violin: oddly shaped combo. Kessler’s brawny bass sound and rollerball motion. McPhee and Vandermark’s tandem reeds cohesive as twin shakuhachi. Occasional geyser blasts of blistering hot tenor, tempered by the clarinet’s liquid balm. The trumpet signature that nods at Bill Dixon and Don Cherry while ultimately sounding like nobody but McPhee. And the trio: top-notch organic teamwork.
Over the past few years McPhee’s visibility has increased. He’s made more records, played out more, arranged other auspicious "meetings." Perhaps his outsider status will diminish as the improvised music mainstream catches wind. As for this listener, McPhee’s music is still something I’d gladly drive through a hurricane to hear.
- John Corbett