Joe McPhee

Underground Railroad/Live at Holy Cross Monastery

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This is an event worth celebrating. Since 1970, trumpeter and saxophonist Joe McPhee's first album, Underground Railroad, has been virtually impossible to find or even hear. Issued in an edition of 500 copies on Craig Johnson's CJR label -- it was recorded next to Johnson's house at the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York -- it sold out and was never reprinted until now. As part of Atavistic's unprecedented and truly essential Unheard Music Series, it is packaged as a double CD with a gig from earlier in 1969 at the very same place: Holy Cross Monastery. That show was documented rather well for the time, and featured the very first live performances of McPhee on tenor. What appears here is a truly historic release and worth every bit of the glory and prestige that Trinity and Nation Time from the same time period (1969-1971) have garnered critically -- both of which are in this series as well. Underground Railroad is comprised of three pieces, the title track, "Harriett," and "Message From Denmark." The band features McPhee on cornet, pocket trumpet, and tenor, Reggy Marks on tenor, soprano, and flute, bassist Tyrone Crabb, and Ernest Bostic on drums, and is a scathing free jazz machine. There are conical sound explorations between brass and reed and between reed and reed. Tonal variants are evoked in order to up the emotional content of the music, which is already so loaded it's a miracle it doesn't fall apart. The rhythm section has a special task here because its job is to harness all the live-wire energy on the title track, the moaning, screaming, crying, and wailing done by the front line. On "Harriett" and "Message From Denmark," the meditation is more on spatial considerations. And while not theoretical in nature like Anthony Braxton's or the Art Ensemble's music from the period, this nonetheless has a reflective quality inherent in the musicians' multiphonic pursuits and meta-jazz references. Beginning on the same disc, the first two selections recorded live at Holy Cross Monastery offer a different side of the equation for the band. Billed as the Contemporary Improvisation Ensemble, this date shows a decidedly more modal approach, at least initially. There are engagements with Eastern scalar variants and thematic preoccupations with intervallic linguistics that move to the outside pretty quickly. Still, it is phenomenal to hear the interplay between McPhee on trumpet and Marks on tenor; their winding, loping chase game is one of the more inspiring things to come out of New York during that era, since everyone else had gone to Europe. The Marks composition "E=MC2" is a wonder of polytonal invention and trumpet glissando. Disc two is made up of four compositions, including McPhee's "Birmingham Sunday" suite, with its Albert Ayler-ish wail and moan, and "Windy City Head Stompin' Blues," which is as close to the funk as McPhee ever got. It has its own R&B groove rooted deeply in the '50s tradition surrounded by a free jazz approach to improvisation. Albert Ayler was trying things like this on Love Cry. Finally, there is the weirdest read ever of Thelonious Monk's "Justice," which falls apart at every turn and features a "one-two-one-two-three-four" beat throughout. This set is one of the most essential recordings of late-'60s free jazz, and anybody remotely interested in the period needs to hear it.

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