Dominic Duval and Joe McPhee: The Dream Book
Joe McPhee (alto sax, trumpet), Dominic Duval (bass)
Trio X: Rapture
Joe McPhee (sax), Jay Rosen (drums), Dominic Duval (bass, electronics), Rosi Hertlein (violin, voice)
Dominic Duval's String Ensemble: Live in Concert
Jason Hwang (violin), Tomas Ulrich (cello), Dominic Duval (bass), Joe McPhee (tenor sax, trumpet), Mark Whitecage (reeds)
It's obvious enough just by listening to him that Joe McPhee has a lot of Ornette in his playing. He has a firm, slightly nasal tone on alto which carries his mostly slow-moving melodies beautifully without ever sounding merely derivative. Although his career is three decades old, McPhee never sounds like a man who is going through the motions of a career which has become irrelevant. Instead, he keeps on growing and continues to surprise; the plasticity of his sound is amazing, and his ability to move with absolute precision between blues and complete abstraction rarely fails.
He's been working with Duval -- now a much-heralded young player in that corner of free jazz which doesn't consider neo-conservatism an option -- for years now, and when the saxophonist was invited to stage a series of concerts at the Knit it seems he knew who to call. The duets which comprise "The Dream Book", an overt tribute to Ornette and his principal co-conspirators from the sixties, are relaxed and generous as their dedicatee's music often is, with Duval's bass strolling along under the rolling saxophone, the two zig-zagging happily through a reconstruction of those simple harmolodic ideas seen from the perspective of a third of a century. Without reviving or reverently re-performing anything, the pair manage to get a whiff of the aura of those records and put it in a contemporary setting. And however fond we might be of Coleman's trumpet-playing activities, McPhee is by far the more technically able on the instrument.
The Trio X session is as different as you like. It begins with a brief, stentorian solo from Duval, which moves smoothly into a forty-seven minute marathon. Hertlein, a figure previously unknown to this writer and, it seems, producer Bob Rusch, makes the trio a quartet and contibutes pretty much equally with the others in a performanc which does just what you'd expect, but not always in the ways you think it will.
Unless under the direction of Cecil Taylor -- and there's certainly a whiff of Taylor here, particularly in Hertlein's Leroy Jenkins-like violin -- improvisations of this length tend to go in waves, with periods of high energy alternating with calmer passages. Well, that's what happens, except that the piece always seems to move at a slow tempo, and the quieter passages are often the more furious ones. Inspired by the "Negro National Hymn" "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing", the louder passages rise to a slow-burning peak rather than simply becoming faster and more dissonant until the musicians can no longer keep up with one another.
Elsewhere, moments like Duval's electronic treatments of Hertlein's voice to create a gentle but rather metallic, keening line may be "quiet bits" but they're a long way from water-treading. There seems to be a genuine attempt here to get away from standard free jazz values: loud + fast = passionate, quiet + slow = sensitive. Playing at this length generally drops straight into that trap -- but not this playing. There's a huge range of different instrumental arrangements within this piece, and one never feels that the musicians are in competition. One very useful point of contact would be Albert Ayler's engagements with marching music, and some of the same preference for steady musical progression rather than frantic spiralling is at the heart of this performance.
It will come as no surprise by now to find that the string ensemble disc -- composed of two Knit gigs, one with McPhee as guest and the other with younger player Mark Whitecage -- it entirely different again. The String Ensemble, like the CT String Quartet which adds Ron Lawrence, is overtly classically-minded, with no particular jazz connections, until one thinks (again) of Taylor's work with the Cecil Taylor Unit (for whom the CT quartet is named) or Ornette's compositions for strings. The group don't use masses of extended techniques so much as multi-layered melodic improvisations in which ideas seem to move at different speeds, in different directions, simultaneously.
As Duval points out, the two guests use rather different strategies when confronted by the dauntingly complex music which this trio can produce (a minor complaint -- sure, it's obvious when listening, but Cadence's habit of witholding basic information like who plays on which tracks is somewhat irritating here). Whitecage dives into the maelstrom as an equal partner, and the music they make together is unified ensemble playing of a high order. This writer has never heard the reedsman in such convincing form as here, and the fact that the lesser-known player has the lion's share of the time on this release is a bonus.McPhee, on the other hand, takes a very bullish stand and makes himself the soloist and the trio, however robust, his accompanists. the music certainly seems to flow better when Whitecage is in the saxophone chair; the tracks with McPhee are gloriously loud and lary but certainly feel less substantial. His trumpet is far more ensemble-oriented than his tenor, and much better-suited to the setting, but ultimately Whitecage's tracks here are the real revelation. It would be nice to think of Whitecage working with this trio more in the future.
Record labels like doing this sort of thing, releasing three discs featuring the same people in one go. Perhaps it's in the hope that the late nineties will be thought of as Duval's important "Cadence years" by future jazz historians, although it's probably just because the three sessions were all excellent recordings and it's a shame to eke them out. Excellent they certainly are, and it leaves reviewers with the difficult but rather inescapable task of recommending one of them. Assuming that the comments above haven't swung your wallet one way or another, this writer humbly recommends the Trio X session, but you really can't go wrong with any of these.