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.
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
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