it's the heady mixture of outside and inside, of experimentation and tradition, and of...
Bill Tilland 2002
Joe McPhee's childhood instrument was the trumpet (which he took up at the age of eight) but his earliest recordings in the late 1960's featured his work on tenor sax. Over the years, McPhee has become adept on alto and soprano saxes, value trombone, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet, cornet, and various clarinets. And the operative word is 'adept', as McPhee is highly fluent on all his instruments. Even though his playing can wander far 'outside', and is at times replete with key clicks, multiphonics and other extended techniques, critics just as often have lauded McPhee for his gorgeous touch and tone.
This CD is a recording of a 1997 radio broadcast for WPKN, Bridgeport, Connecticut, consisting of duets between McPhee and Joe Giardullo. It would be easy to make assumptions here, e.g. four year old, low-budget jazz radio broadcast + small independent label = forgettable result. But McPhee never gives less than his best, and Specific Gravity is yet another worthy addition to McPhee's splendid body of work. McPhee plays alto clarinet, soprano sax, valve trombone and electronics, while Giardullo plays flute, bass clarinet, soprano sax and electronics. It's not always easy to tell who is playing what, but the flute and trombone are giveaways, and it appears that McPhee's sound is spatially oriented to the right, while Giardullo is on the left.
The long opening track, "A Priori" is a bit of a showcase for the two musicians. The piece starts with some electronic loops from Giardullo's soprano, together with a subtle electronic pulse, to which McPhee adds his valve trombone. Giardullo moves from bass clarinet to a sweetly ethereal, electronically enhanced flute, while McPhee joins in with an equally lyrical alto clarinet. The tranquility is slowly dispersed by some strident but passionate soprano blowing by McPhee , following this with some growling, multiphonic vocalizations on trombone, sounding for all the world like a one-man digeridoo duet. This description of the music makes it sound fragmented and episodic, but it all flows together quite effortlessly and unselfconsciously. With McPhee, it's the heady mixture of outside and inside, of experimentation and tradition, and of technique and imagination, which gives his music its character. It's as if he's telling the listener -- "hey, open your ears....it's all music, and it's all good."
The second shorter title piece is a vehicle for Giardullo, who displays an impressive circular breathing technique on bass clarinet, maintaining an ostinato pattern in the lower register while setting harmonic figures against it. The third and fourth pieces reveal just how solidly McPhee is locked into the jazz tradition; the first is a breathtakingly poignant rendition of John Coltrane's "After the Rain," for two sopranos (this piece alone is worth the outlay for the CD), while the final selection, "Sienna," begins with Giardullo on flute, and then features a series of bluesy, swinging vamps from McPhee on trombone, which wouldn't be out of place on a Count Basie date. Clearly, McPhee can do it all - and with style, wit, passion and grace.