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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chicago, December 1996
"A Meeting In Chicago"
sound begins in the silence of the morning
before the morning
of the day before
in a vortex of dreams
to meet the dawn
racing naked across a razor’s edge
through the frozen fog of memory
sound emerges like long shadowy fingers
snaking throughout the silence
collecting the silence
in a cocoon of silence
in anticipation of
sound surrenders to itself
where the meeting begins
speaking in lost languages
forgotten in a climate
sound continues in
Poughkeepsie, New York, September 1, 1996
On A Meeting In Chicago,
Vandermark and Kessler encounter Joe McPhee, an undersung veteran
brass and reeds player from Poughkeepsie. Here’s hoping the meeting
becomes a regular date; I could certainly live with a few more of
the explorations of lyricism, applied aggression and pure sound
that make this album one of the year’s best.
[picked as one of
the best five free/jazz albums of 1997]
Meyer, Magnet, November/December 1997
**** (4 stars)
Henry Threadgill, McPhee is hard to pin down critically because he
belongs to no identifiable generic niche. This extraordinary set
could almost be the work of some as yet unknown, conservatory-trained
but sceptical modernist who has written his thesis on the wind groups
of early modernism, those experimenters who took perverse delight in
trying combinations that had not been heard since the classical era.
As a meeting of minds, this one is hard to improve on.
Vandermark’s NRGetic style is more cautiously modulated here and
Kessler is, almost in compensation, much more pungent and
confrontational than usual. McPhee, doubling as ever on trumpet and
reeds, sounds in charge, signalling changes of direction and
conducting the transitions from full-on collaborative batter to a more
delicate choice of brush-strokes.
— Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, fifth edition
improviser/multi-instrumentalist McPhee joins two members of the
NRG Ensemble in solo, duo and trio performances. The high energy
post-Dolphy improvisational dynamics of "Breakneck Ridge" and solo
showcase "Fourteen Years Later" are typical Vandermark strategies
like the high intensity tenor sax duos, "Heart Of The Matter" and
the virtuoso circular breathing of "Hard Circles" where riffs become
overlapping spirals like furious mosquitoes circling each other.
Other predictable strategies are the freescape dirges "Menga Kala
Koota" and "Lalibela" as the trio explore sustained drone tones
and fractal lines.
recordings by Steelwool Trio and Vandermark’s Standards project
feature a mainstream lyricism and conventional swing that’s not
been a prominent aspect of his music with the NRG. Yet it is fascinating
to hear McPhee interact with this gentler aspect of Vandermark’s
art. Certainly this is what makes "Zahava" and "Empty Bottle Blues"
so special. "Zahava" is a beautiful spiritual ballad for tenor duo
that attains a lyrical intensity recalling Albert Aylor, while the
spacy "Empty Bottle Blues" is a pretty contrapuntal blues by the
trio featunng McPhee’s soprano sax and Vandermark’s bass clarinet.
influence is first apparent in the way that the intense opener "A
Meeting in Chicago" is layered so insistently with silences that
intersperse unison passages and individual statements by Kessler’s
arco, Vandermark’s bass clarinet and McPhee’s tenor sax. From the
intense fury of the opening, the performance ultimately resolves
into a slow and spacy contrapuntal dirge. Silence and space also
operate as potent structural principles in trio performances of
"Matter of the Heart" and "Lalibela" as well as McPhee’s concluding
duo on soprano with Kessler in the ballad "I Leave You Love."
Circles" is a solo trumpet showcase that presents McPhee’s radical
aesthetic combined with his Bill Dixon inspired microtonal and valve
techniques. Yet most interesting among the solo performances is
Kessler’s astonishing improvisation "Central Wisconsin Double Wide"
where his arco vibrato creates uncanny bass impressions of circular
fascinating to hear McPhee, Vandermark and Kessler interact and
I hope there will be future projects by this trio that will enlarge
upon the rich promise inherent in superb perfommances like "Zahava"
and "Empty Bottle Blues."
Lewis, Cadence, December 1997
of the most striking releases among the new wave of avant-garde
recordings is A Meeting in Chicago (Eighth Day Music), which documents
a 1996 collaboration among East Coast trumpeter/saxophonist Joe
McPhee and Chicagoans Ken Vandermark (reeds) and Kent Kessler (bass).
Though each player is well-known to listeners who savor musical
experimentation, the combination proves startling, with McPhee’s
blasts, whispers and sighs matched by equally tempestuous playing
from Vandermark and Kessler. For all the audacity and innovation
of this music-making, though, there’s a palpable sense of order
and control beneath it. Certainly the band’s rhythmically charged
counterpoint and ethereal solos in the title track, pointillistic
bursts of color in "Heart of the Matter" and pensive quality of
"Matter of the Heart" represent deeply expressive, brilliantly executed
Reich, Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1997
There can’t be many places in town where an avant-garde horn player
known primarily by the cognoscenti can attract a standing-room-only
crowd in the middle of the week.
Yet that’s precisely what happened Wednesday evening at the Empty
Bottle, on North Western Avenue, which is well on its way toward
becoming a focal point for new music on the North Side.
Or at least the club is earning that distinction on Wednesday nights,
when its jazz series presents experimenters of the most sophisticated
and adventurous kind. The series has been underway for just a couple
of months, yet it clearly has found its audience, a fact underscored
not only by the size of Wednesday evening’s crowd but also by its
attitude toward the music at hand.
Though multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee challenged his listeners
with profoundly cerebral improvisations, though he ventured into
passages of uncompromising dissonance and textural complexity, his
audience seemed to hang on every note. The Empty Bottle may be an
alternative-rock haven during most of the week, but on Wednesday
evenings it transforms itself into a den of serious jazz experimentation,
with a savvy and open-minded audience to match.
McPhee, a veteran player who was making his belated Chicago debut
as soloist, turned in a startling performance marked by equal parts
virtuosity and invention.
He launched his first set boldly, playing pocket trumpet without
sounding a single pitch. Instead, McPhee shaped and phrased long
streams of air, producing a kind of white noise with subtle shadings
all its own.
Eventually McPhee’s solo began to hint at certain pitches, mostly
in the stratospheric register of his instrument. The speed with
which he articulated notes, the abrupt silences that punctuated
them and the flurry of ideas he presented established the scope
and technical accomplishment of his work.
Virtually in mid-phrase, McPhee switched to soprano saxophone, and
here he played incantatory phrases evoking late-period John Coltrane
as well as more recent work by Roscoe Mitchell. McPhee’s playing
may not be as melodically intense as Coltrane’s nor as rhythmically
driven as Mitchell’s, yet the muted poetry of his improvisations
proved equally alluring.
On tenor saxophone, McPhee covered a broader spectrum of color and
texture, from honking low notes to wailing high ones. Yet there
was order and clarity here, too, with McPhee taking pains to clarify
the meaning of his solos with carefully timed pauses and other forms
of musical punctuation.
Even amid all the sound and fury, however, McPhee frequently offered
his listeners a hint of a traditional melodic phrase here, an echo
of a familiar tune there. The musical past, McPhee seemed to be
saying, relates to the present and the future — it’s all a continuum,
and few jazz artists express that musical philosophy more poetically
Reich, Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1997
Kessler seems to specialise in such alert collaborations. On
A Meeting in Chicago he and reedsman Ken Vandermark join Joe
McPhee in crafting a series of concentrated, beautifully shaped
miniatures. John Corbett’s sleevenotes remark upon McPhee’s ongoing
outsider status, even among free music enthusiasts, and properly
suggest that this fine recording deserves further plaudits for his
potent yet highly disciplined playing on trumpet and reeds. The range
of techniques employed is as startling as the control with which they
are used. The musicians gouge ferociously one instant, trace delicate
designs the next, as they draw singular structures from the
Cowley, The Wire, July 1998
Meeting in Chicago must set some kind of record for quickest
reissue. Released in September of ’97 on Eighth Day, it follows
six months later in a typically well-designed (but difficult to store)
OkkaDisk package. The recording comes from a 1996 studio meeting
between Vandermark and Joe McPhee. Vandermark cites McPhee’s
epochal solo recording Tenor as a major influence. One can hear
influences in phrasing but listening to this disc, there is no
difficulty in separating the two saxophonists.
third part of this trio, bassist Kent Kessler, is an old hand at this
type of two horn format, having provided the grounding for the dual
reed team of Hal Russell and Mars Williams in the NRG Ensemble. But,
in addition to providing an anchor, he also functions as a third
voice. His arco work on “Heart of the Matter”, one of this
disc’s highlights, is the perfect compliment for
Vandermark’s moaning tenor and McPhee’s plaintive
trumpet. Another highlight is the McPhee/Vandermark tenor duet of
“Hard Circles” with them looping phrases around each other
in an almost mobius strip-like fashion. “Empty Bottle
Blues” with McPhee on soprano and Vandermark playing bass
clarinet proceeds at a deliberate pace over Kessler’s sturdy
walking bass line. Although entirely improvised, some of these tracks
have an almost-composed feel to them.
not a case of mentor and teacher or, conversely, a cutting session,
this is a meeting of three minds who got together for one reason:
— Robert Iannapollo, Cadence, September 1998