Breathing Life into Jazz / Whispers Across a Mouthpiece

Stephen C. Middleton




The Setting (1) 

A new century and the jazz shadows lengthen. Pundits naysay innovation. The giants are dead or dormant. It’s just declensions now. Samples and new backbeats. It isn’t true, of course. Jazz wasn’t dead all those other times, either. 

Some of the artists breathing new life into the form are young, as they should / must be.  Some are older, constantly evolving. Still receptive. 
          Joe McPhee has just turned sixty. His story, a fascinating one already, is still in progress. A multi-instrumentalist (a virtuoso on brass and reeds, or weaving an electronic spell), composer, free improviser (in groups and alone); it is a story of tension maintained, alongside achingly beautiful tunes.
            Exposed to the music of Joe McPhee intuitive cohorts, amateur eared or musically learned, discern his lyricism, allied to seriousness of intent. Playing free his focus is extraordinary – only breath sounds sometimes, whispers over the mouthpiece.
   His PO Trio one of the greatest jazz groups. Drummerless. André Jaume more expansive (a reedman) against Joe’s control. Raymond Boni, guitarist extraordinaire, provides an ectoplasmic commentary, sometimes a terrorist.
    His range: blues (literal and tributes); politics (‘Nation Time’ and ‘Harriet’ (dedicated to Harriet Tubman)); his electronic Survival Unit… before its time; a vibrant slant on the jazz tradition – reworking Mingus, Shorter, Golson to genuine effect; nods out of left field to neglected forebears, Roach, Giuffre, Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue); and those potent songs, ‘Violets for Pia’, ‘Nenette’, and his theme tune ‘Voices’, the latter steely, soaring, ever evolving. A severe filter that he hears through. Dance possible too, but, like Miles, pared down. Only the essentials shared.
 

The Setting (2)

Espace Gagarine, La Courneuve, Paris.

We’d corresponded for several years and had occasional phone contact. We’d met mutual friends, but an actual encounter eluded… With endorsements / exhortations from his cohorts confirmed by phone chats, it became imperative. Symbolic setting and an important way station for me as a writer about this music.

With Daunik Lazro (reeds), Claude Tchamitchain (bass) and, so inspired as to be almost unbelievable, Raymond Boni on acoustic guitar, Joe’s performance was brooding, mesmerising, beautiful…
The apotheosis: ‘Voices’, especially poignant in this incarnation as it celebrated twenty years of collaboration between Joe and Raymond. Those familiar clenched spirals, hard won and unsparing. A story of tension maintained. A pad on my knees. My hand, I’m told, a blur. I could write a book, I thought, and found, looking down, that I had.
 

    January 2000


Kater Murr's Press, Piraeus Series, 2000. 
Copyright © Stephen C. Middleton, 2000.
Photo by Steve Robinson;
copyright  © Steve Robinson, 2000.