Festivals of free improvisation where the participants actually launch off unfettered into new territory with unknown companions are actually fairly rare; the artistic director of one famous festival even made something of a motto of the unofficial declaration: "I will not present the first meeting." (Meaning, between two players on a stage.) This CD is all first meetings, as seems to be the Baltimore, MD, High Zero festival concept. Any CD of well-recorded documentation that comes out of an event such as this is bound to be interesting in the least; a volume centering around the activities of multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee turns out to be a must-have for the free improvisation recording collection. Look at it as a space-saving device. Much of the free improvisation scene, when one comes right down to it, focuses on different personalities, and this CD is loaded; one could say it has the personality of several dozen free improvisation projects. The concept is set up right from the start with the use of the Mister Peabody moniker. The fairly serious liner notes do not actually comment on any connection between McPhee -- or perhaps Peabody is collective characterization of everyone that came to Baltimore -- and the well-loved canine professor from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. Hopefully, this is the intended meaning, suggesting that this is intelligent music for intelligent people -- but intelligent in a useful, friendly way, like Mr. Peabody. If this is not the intended reference, then besides an apology a comment can be offered that this might be the only thing the High Zero festival lacks -- a reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle. Otherwise it is all here, and it as a great weekend for McPhee. Some enjoyable aspects of the terrific Baltimore scene are the highly original, sometimes downright bizarre electronics and homemade instrument players, who often turn these extended pieces into vignettes of compelling diversity. More than 33 minutes of "Before the Fall" are glorious, an opportunity for seasoned improvisers to create enough developments for an orchestral suite, the listener undoubtedly to be surprised to realize only three musicians are performing. Saxophonist Jack Wright is heard to great advantage, and while this is hardly his most intense recording, his sympathy with McPhee is total. Ian Nagoski, Michael Johnson, and James Coleman are some of the electronic dervishes whose contributions are so mighty. They are like great chili cooks arriving at a contest with their grub giving off a captivating aroma; Johnson also deals some soprano sax and has a musical saw on hand, while Coleman plays a theramin on "Klatu," a reference to The Day the Earth Stood Still, and this time there is not a shred of doubt. When all is said and done, the final trumpet solo, entitled "Homeless," might just be the prize winner. What prize? The Peabody Award, naturally.
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AllMusic Review by Eugene Chadbourne