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Joe McPhee  

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 burner.
     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  
Nihilist Spasm Band and Joe McPhee  
NO BORDERS (Non Musica Rex NMRx0002)



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