logo   A Meeting in Chicago (OD12016)
Musicians Joe McPhee — brass & reeds
Ken Vandermark — reeds
Kent Kessler — bass
Cover and Artwork cover

Cover painting: Dan Grzeca
Graphic design: Louise Molnar

Songs 1. A Meeting in Chicago (trio) (5:12)
2. Heart of the Matter (trio) (2:25) (MPEG2)
3. Matter of the Heart (trio) (4:55)
4. Soft Circles (McPhee solo) (2:28)
5. Breakneck Ridge (McPhee & Kessler duo) (2:12)
6. Central Wisconsin Double Wide (Kessler solo) (4:43)
7. Hard Circles (McPhee & Vandermark duo) (6:06)
8. Zahava (McPhee & Vandermark duo) (3:26)
9. Menga Kala Koota (trio) (3:04)
10. Empty Bottle Blues (trio) (5:06)
11. Lalibela (trio) (8:53)
12. Fourteen Years Later (Vandermark solo) (2:28)
13. I Leave You Love (McPhee & Kessler duo) (4:10)
total time: 55:12

All compositions by McPhee/Vandermark/Kessler
Recording Info Recorded at Überstudio, Chicago, IL, February 14, 1996

Produced by: McPhee/Vandermark/Kessler
Executive Producer: Adam Paul Vales
Engineered & mixed by: Brendan Burke
Reissue produced by: Bruno Johnson

(this is a reissue of Eighth Day Music disc #EDM 80008, released summer ’97)

Liner 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
Chicago, December 1996

"A Meeting In Chicago"

The 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

The sound emerges like long shadowy fingers
snaking throughout the silence
collecting the silence
in a cocoon of silence
in anticipation of
the next

The sound surrenders to itself
and becomes
the place
where the meeting begins
unfolding layers
of mystery
revealing nothing
revealing all
speaking in lost languages
forgotten in a climate
of nostalgia

The sound continues in
anticipation of
the next

- Joe McPhee
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]

- Bill Meyer, Magnet, November/December 1997

**** (4 stars)

Like 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

Veteran 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.

Recent 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.

McPhee’s 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."

"Soft 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 breathing techniques.

It’s 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."

- David Lewis, Cadence, December 1997

One 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 improvisations.

- Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1997

Regarding Joe McPhee:
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 than McPhee.

- Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, July 11, 1997

...Kent 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 surrounding silence.

— Julian Cowley, The Wire, July 1998

A 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.

The 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.

Clearly 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: making music.

— Robert Iannapollo, Cadence, September 1998