In a recent New York Times editorial, the renowned Milton
scholar and intermittently reigning academic provocateur Stanley
Fish commented on the status of relativism after the events of September
11. Fish details his dismay at being asked by a number of reporters
whether the attack on the World Trade Center had decisively put
an end to postmodern undecidability. Here, the reporters offered,
is knowable, unambiguous evil. Fish's response is that relativism
- one could also substitute Edward Said's call to reject "false
universals" - is precisely what is necessary to understand
the motives for the attacks. As Fish puts it, "No one declares
himself to be an apostle of injustice." The challenge is to
comprehend differing convictions - not to impose barriers to understanding
with the cul-de-sac rhetoric of "evil," "irrationality,"
and the like.
Let me shift gears. Considerably.
Different subject, almost.
Fish's remarks on relativism have
stuck with me as I've pondered these two extraordinarily different
recordings featuring the free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee.
My point in summarizing Fish's argument is to consider McPhee's
achievement not only in the stylistic breadth of his playing but
also in the conceptual breadth of his music-making. It takes a certain
kind of relativism to participate in such disparate endeavors.
Underground Railroad, originally
issued in 1969, is Joe McPhee's first record as a leader. His first
appearance on record had occurred two years earlier, playing trumpet
on his composition "O.C.T." on Clifford Thornton's stellar
Freedom & Unity (also reissued as part of the Unheard
Music Series). Freedom & Unity was recorded in New York
on the day after John Coltrane's funeral in July, 1967. (Coltrane
bassist Jimmy Garrison guests on the same track with McPhee.) Thirty
years later, Underground Railroad still counts as an inspiring
document, a firecracker of a record notable for the dynamic range
of its four players as they move through various sub-groupings -
McPhee himself doesn't appear until nearly six and a half minutes
into the record. Although he had been playing trumpet since he was
a child, McPhee didn't pick up the saxophone until 1968, and his
tenor playing on Underground Railroad reveals a musician
thrillingly fast out of the gate. The current reissue is augmented
by a second disk featuring a McPhee-led sextet recorded six months
earlier at the same space, the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park,
New York. An arrangement of Thelonius Monk's "Evidence"
sets up an inspired segue into McPhee's "Windy City Head Stompin'
Blues," both a protest against police violence at that summer's
Democratic National Convention in Chicago and a - you got it - stomping
blues that anticipates Nation Time, McPhee's 1970 soul-jazz
McPhee's records from this time -
Underground Railroad, Trinity, Nation Time
- consistently speak to a heady, intense period of racial politics.
Underground Railroad is dedicated "to the black experience
on the planet earth." Pieces are titled in reference to the
church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, to Harriet Tubman, to Denmark
Vesey. At the time, McPhee lectured in the Black Studies program
at Vassar College. The period was not merely post-Coltrane - it
was also post-Martin Luther King and post-Malcolm X. Recordings
were made at the University and the Monastery.
Today, Joe McPhee still makes Joe
McPhee music. All kinds of it, in fact. He makes hushed, intimate
music, as on A Meeting in Chicago (Okkadisk), a trio with
Ken Vandermark and Kent Kessler; he makes politically impassioned
music, as on Emancipation Proclamation (Okkadisk), a duo
with Hamid Drake; he contributes to the gale-force frontline of
Peter Brötzmann's Tentet.
Strangest of all his recent recordings
- hands down - is No Borders, a collaboration with the Nihilist
Spasm Band. The NSB are a six-piece free improvising noise group
from London, Ontario who have been making their inimitable low-impact
racket since the late 1960s. Don't expect anything too spasmodic,
nor even particularly noisy by Japanoise standards. The group's
nihilism is showcased in their not having conventionally mastered
their instruments - which is arguably noteworthy given that they're
in their fourth decade as a group. (Listening to these two recordings
back-to-back, it's impossible not to compare the NSB's forever-naive
status with McPhee's exceptionally serious tenor playing - his then-new
instrument - on Underground Railroad.) The NSB aren't about
extended techniques; Hugh McIntyre thumps the bass, John Clement
thumps the drums, Art Pratten saws on the violin. Their utter lack
of avant-garde preciousness is a primary asset. My stumbling block
with the group has always been vocalist Bill Exley's rants - low-denominator,
zero-dimensional satire that ups the group's annoyance factor exponentially.
I much prefer his grunting and kazoo playing. Regardless, the extent
to which McPhee blends with the group is both funny and inspiring.
At no point is he the Jazz Guy running
circles around the Noise People. They're a bunch of Noise People,
and you can chalk it up to a healthy relativism.
|Joe McPhee Quartet
||(Unheard Music Series
Band and Joe McPhee
||(Non Musica Rex NMRx0002)