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Hamid Drake and Joe McPhee - Emancipation Proclamation

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Artist: Hamid Drake and Joe McPhee

Album: Emancipation Proclamation

Label: Okkadisk

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

Have you ever attended and loved a concert, only to shake your head when hearing the recording? Too often the atmosphere that contributed to the experience doesn’t make it onto tape. Emancipation Proclamation documents the first duo concert by percussionist Hamid Drake and tenor saxophonist / pocket trumpeter Joe McPhee. I was there, and it was one of my favorite concerts of 1999. But this time I’m very grateful that some of the atmosphere did NOT translate. You see, they were opening for the Vandermark 5 on the occasion of their first hometown appearance since Ken Vandermark had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant. So there were TV crews, curious novices flushed out by the blizzard of press that had already been devoted to the award, and the sort of people who go to the Empty Bottle on any Friday night because it’s Friday and they want to rock. In other words, the kind of babbling that would drown out Jesus if he were the opening act. Part of what awed me about this concert was Drake and McPhee’s dignity in the face of such rudeness, but I don’t ever again want to hear that rabble’s babble. Somehow recordist Malachi Ritscher, Chicago’s tireless documenter of jazz and improvised music concerts, managed to point his stereo microphone so that it picked up all of the music but not much of the crowd’s noise.

There’s one other thing missing - surprise. No one could have known in advance just how well these two men would mesh, how sympathetically Drake would shade McPhee’s speech-inflected blowing, how responsive McPhee (who has often worked without a drummer) would be to Drake’s insistent grooves, how they could summon the spirit of Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell’s Mu and then alchemize that energy into something all their own.

So playing this CD isn’t quite as hair-raising an experience as the concert. So what. It’s still a marvelous study in attuned, selfless music-making. No egos, not chops-flashing - just free-flowing sound so gorgeous it obscures the amazing technique it took to make it. Drake surrounds and recontextualizes McPhee’s unfurling ribbons of circular-breathing saxophone and ghostly multiphonics and strangled trumpet cries with cymbal shading and rolling, shifting polyrhythms. The comparison to Mu isn’t spurious; Drake has played with Cherry, and certainly has learned well Blackwell’s lessons on incorporating African rhythms into jazz drumming. McPhee’s choice of brass is an explicit homage to Cherry, and the exquisite melody he unveils during “Mother Africa” would have done Don proud.

But deep roots can thrust a tree mighty high into the air. McPhee’s ideas quickly take him into a zone of his own, where sounds summon nameless emotions. He closes the concert alone, singing through his saxophone, and every time I hear that mingling of voice and horn those hairs on the back of my neck stand in attention.

By Bill Meyer

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