This is an event worth celebrating. Since 1970, trumpeter and saxophonist Joe McPhee's first album, Underground Railroad, has been virtually impossible to find or even hear. Issued in an edition of 500 copies on Craig Johnson's CJR label – it was recorded next to Johnson's house at the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York – it sold out and was never reprinted until now. As part of Atavistic's unprecedented and truly essential Unheard Music Series, it is packaged as a double CD with a gig from earlier in 1969 at the very same place: Holy Cross Monastery.
Über-lunged German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann teamed up with American vanguard legend Joe McPhee (who plays alto, tenor, trumpet, and pocket cornet here), bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Michael Zerang (four-tenths of the Tentet Brötzmann toured and recorded with in the late '90s) for a single day of exchanging tunes and improvising in June 2002. McPhee and Brötzmann are perfect foils for one another on the front line. They both have requisite force, but McPhee is also a chameleon's player; he understands what lies in the spaces and knows how to make the most of it. His own compositions here, which account for over half the album, stress the kind of joint front-line melodies and close harmonics that create inner space in a tune – just check his two-part "Stone Poem" and his "Anticipation of the Next," dedicated to departed bassists Peter Kowald and Wilbur Morris, for evidence. Brötzmann offers some surprises here in his pieces as well, not the least of which is his reformulation of a hymn Thelonious Monk recorded shortly before his death, originally entitled "This Is My Story, This Is My Song." Titled "Blessed Assurance" here, it takes the hymn, moves through its changes twice, and extrapolates them through his solo and the band's collective improvisation. McPhee's trumpet is the perfect complement and the pair sound like Albert and Don Ayler swinging their chariots toward the heavenly gates. Likewise, the beautiful art-damaged composition "Pieces of Red, Green, and Blue" (supposedly written about a museum experience he and Brötzmann shared) offers killer honking saxophone phrases that are repeated, striated, warped, turned inside out and back on themselves, and finally exploded into intense and inspired group interplay. This is a fiery and yet accessible date that showcases many aspects of the two men not only as players, but as composers as well.
It is difficult to think of this as anything but pure joy, although in some ways it is less intense than other releases led by the remarkable violist Mat Maneri and it is stamped with a cerebral quality from the start. There is a surprisingly charming density, too, that comes through on most tracks, though as with most of his work, there are few if any melodic references but instead a focus on color and sound. Maneri carefully paces himself and the quintet so that every note counts, resulting in some of his most interesting work on disk. At times it might seem somewhat slow, even morose, but upon close listening a diversity and a depth are revealed that belie the noir episodes.
What you hear on this album is the first ever incidence of collaboration between four special players. 70-year-old saxophonist Joe McPhee blazes straight into the heart of the Decoy trio’s fizzling, telepathic, free music. One for those who like their drums, double bass and Hammond organ delivered in a distinctly untamed fashion. “A stonking live recording…” While the music is truly made up on the spot, there's no lack of shape, with the three pieces developing structure through constant shifts of pulse and metre…