Close mic. Huffs, puffs, bites, and tongue plucks all audible. This is like a living room performance, as if Joe McPhee is just ten feet away playing as much for himself as for the attendees. Apparently, this was actually recorded (beautifully, mind you) in McPhee's own closet. It is almost confessional.
During the first two years of the pandemic, it seems nearly every musician began churning out solo releases. There is something about this specific release, however, that makes this one different. Although he is a living tenor legend, McPhee is even more than that. And this and so many other recent releases show that. Clearly, at 82 years old, he is not done.
I cannot help but think of Arthur Doyle's solo endeavors Plays and Sings from the Songbook, Volume 1 or The Songwriter in terms of unvarnished intimacy and the simple repeating melodies that bind each track. Given the three decades of sound technologies separating them, it should not be surprising that this sounds much better and, of course, McPhee is a much different musician than Doyle. However, that feeling of a visionary musician driven to make an album in the face of opposition, comes through. It reaches toward that kind of purity of sound, warts, warbles, warps and all.
Route 84 Quarantine Blues starts small, with huffs and disjointed tones, which eventually evolve into a familiar, bluesy melody. Then he unfurls. Huffing begets squawking begets squeaking. McPhee can hold his own among honkers. Just think of Two Bands and a Legend or Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet. Nevertheless, he maintains a rare tenderness as his ghostly, broken, avant-blues takes center stage. This becomes especially clear on the title track, wherein several of McPhee's horns are layered. This bursts the solo living room illusion, but also reminds the listener of the estrangement of the times. He soars on Route 84, laying jagged lick upon jagged lick. However, through it all and in contrast with the pure solo setting of the rest of the album, this piece points to an earlier and (hopefully) future time, wherein horns can join in real-time and achieve a collective vision. Coupled with the poetry and pronouncements which have become a staple of McPhee's small group and solo performances and recordings as of late, Route 84 yearns for conversation and engagement.
It is potent and it is personal. Especially in track two, which he dedicates to his forebearers who chose to sink into the Atlantic over enslavement, one can really hear the aching in the tenor's quaver and McPhee's muffled vocal cries. This is a song of tragedy and loss, but also, in a disconcerting but very real sense, of the triumph of the lone human spirit and the African will for freedom against everything.
The album consists of 11 tracks. These include McPhee improvisatory riffing on both Carla Bely and Charles Mingus themes, including an ode/take on Joni Mitchell's rendition of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" lightheartedly titled "Goodbye Porky Pig Hat" — and a lot of McPhee's own instant compositions and meditations on the moment. Inspirations range from the Black Panthers to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Interstate 84 to, or course, the Covid pandemic. Throughout it all, the recording sounds close. One can hear everything, from the huff and hiss of his breath as he pushes it through the horn to the air slipping out of the side of his lips to the click of his tongue that vibrates the reed. It all sounds so natural at this point, as if even the inevitable unintentional sounds are there for a reason. And, as McPhee does, he often leans into those accidents as if they are more than incidental products. This is something that has made this musician so distinctive over the years. He plays with confidence and force but also with a vulnerability that I have not heard captured quite so potently before.
For those not yet acquainted with McPhee's solo work, I can think of no better place to start. For those already initiated, this one may still surprise you.
Comments and Feedback: