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Joe McPhee - Oleo

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Artist: Joe McPhee

Album: Oleo

Label: Hatology

Review date: Sep. 10, 2004

Thank goodness that Joe McPhee’s music has gotten wider exposure in the last 10 years, due to the steady support of labels like CIMP/CJR and the frequent reissues coming from Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series. Without this change of fortune, the Poughkeepsie-based reeds and brass player might have remained as obscure as he was for much of the 1970s and 1980s, when he could barely even get a gig downriver in New York City. Thankfully, there was plenty of work in Europe, where McPhee formed some enduring partnerships with continental improvisers and where he received the unflagging support of the Hat Hut label (which was started, after all, to release McPhee’s music!). This is a reissue of one of his more important sessions (and here’s hoping we see Graphics and Rotation sometime soon).

It’s a record in two parts, both recorded on the same day – August 2, 1982 – in Switzerland. Originally released as Oleo & A Future Retrospective, the first seven tracks are played by a quartet featuring McPhee on tenor and pocket cornet, André Jaume on clarinets and alto sax, Francois Méchali on bass, and the marvelous, undersung Raymond Boni on guitar. Here these players – all weaned on high energy, fractious free jazz – dig into a number of actual tunes. There are two very twisted readings of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” where the quartet not only races through the head in a blistering Ornette/Cherry fashion but also transforms it with outer space guitar asides, lush obbligatos, and the like. There’s also a sublime performance of Benny Golson’s haunting “I Remember Clifford.” What unites these tunes, both of which reveal McPhee’s love of idiom, is their passion – it’s hard to miss, whether the band is racing to save its life or playing starkly, forlornly. For me, McPhee has always been most effective and memorable when the deep emotionalism at the heart of his music is out in the open. And it’s all over this record, from the brooding sorrow of “Pablo” (a feature for Méchali’s arco playing) to the righteous, uplifting “Ann Kahlé” and “Astral Spirits.”

The latter half of the record is from a concert the evening of the studio session. Down to a bassless trio, the musicians play four interlocking pieces dedicated to Eric Dolphy (and whose titles are derived from the cryptic words Dolphy uttered at the end of his concert recording Last Date: “When You Hear Music, After It’s Over, It’s Gone in the Air, You Can Never Capture It Again”). These pieces are more abstract, floating ethereally here and flashing with harshness elsewhere. The main action comes through the exchange between Jaume’s burbling bass clarinet and McPhee’s keening horns, though Boni’s quizzical asides and unexpected sizzles can’t be overlooked either. This concert provides a rich complement to the more fully-cooked earlier recording. Taken as a whole, this is just a wonderful record, one which I’ve long treasured and whose reappearance is cause for celebration. There’s nothing like McPhee music, and this one is not to be missed.

By Jason Bivins

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