Monday, May 04, 2009

Cup of Joe

It's always wonderful and poetic when I'm in a deep listening rut (the good kind) and then the artist or band in question happens to play a show. There's no chance Mr. Giuffre (R.I.P.)--whom you'll recall from below--will be coming to town anytime soon, but fortunately, his onetime collaborator (and another-time tribute-payer) Joe McPhee stopped by the RUCMA series tonight, on this drizzly Monday evening.

The program was billed as New York Alto Solos, which in practice meant a few pieces on alto sax, one on alto clarinet (an instrument not unlike a bass clarinet that I don't think I've ever seen or heard before) and then another one on alto sax. It was a steely Monday today--a deep slog--and I felt outstandingly nourished by what McPhee was up to. He is a stellar improviser, relishing his sound materials so caringly and for so long, the kind that invites you to really step outside of whatever mix you're in and think and feel for a while.

The setting was an LES bar, formerly Meow Mix and now called Local 269. There was loud traffic and some arguing outside and it was raining. Some in the audience looked back nervously every time the door opened or the cash register dinged. McPhee kept his eyes closed. Before the last piece, he remarked, "I'm really liking the rain, and that bus that went by was great." It was like a gift of permission: "Don't stress about the din," or somesuch. He didn't shun it or shut it out and it taught a valuable lesson by example.

But what sounds!, sometimes flinty and turbulent, and then other times that patented deep abstract-soul thing that McPhee is so insanely good at. In the latter mode, a piece called "Old Eyes," dedicated to Ornette Coleman. "We have to give people their flowers while they're here," said McPhee when he was done.

He dedicated the first piece to the Lower East Side itself, so I guess it was fitting he welcomed in the city ambience. He welcomed happy sonic accident too. An errant squeak on the horn led to a few minutes of exploring that texture, exhausting the chance find, resolving it, making it part of the song. It's a lesson in economy, watching him. He spent a lot of time with just the keys, no breath, tapping them and just zoning out on that soft makeshift percussion. It sounded like a hushed thumb piano.

When I heard the Sunn O))) playback a few weeks ago, I thought about the blessing of the time to just sit and zero in. That was recorded music, though, and this was a blissful live scenario, just sitting there drinking a Hoegaarden with an orange in it that tasted fizzy and delicious, and closing my eyes and even feeling like I wanted to cry a few times. (Felt choked up also on the train earlier listening to a Paul Bley solo piece, "Mephisto," from this record.) The whole audience was with McPhee. It's not some "heroic" and hackneyed ecstatic-jazz thing when he plays, just a miracle of concentration. He cares about sound and its conservation and finding out what can happen at a certain time and place and seeing it through.

Insanely, a 69-year-old man. Always thought of him as of a younger generation, but he's only a few years younger than Ayler or Shepp. Seems like he didn't get his due really till the late '90s, but maybe that's just when I started hearing about him. (Or maybe it's that he took a little while to come into his own; his current work sound much, much deeper to me than what I've heard of his early stuff.) He was wearing a killer hoodie advertising Scandinavian power-jazz unit The Thing, with whom he sat in to brilliant effect at Zebulon a few weeks ago. Also, cargo pants.

Last night, an evening crammed full of luminaries at Radio City. Fine, even rad in spots, but it didn't even remotely do for me what this did.

A great American artist, inadvertently responsible for the name of this blog, once sang, "I could spend my whole life just listening to sound." It seems like Joe McPhee pretty much has, and I could spend my whole life just listening to him. He performs again this coming Thursday, 5/7, at The Stone. Maybe I will see you there.


Matt said...

sounds like McPhee and Blood Ulmer need to do a record together.

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