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Joe McPhee/Johnny McLellan: Grand Marquis

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History is often an exercise in connecting the dots, but usually more attention is paid to the dots themselves than the persons or events that connect them. Albert Ayler and David S. Ware are two such dots, and are deservedly celebrated as such. Yet they would be far less connected to a larger, richer historical context were it not for Joe McPhee. McPhee restructured the gliding approach to pitch and dynamics that melded into Ayler’s innovative melodic deformation, and he refined the Aylerian contrast between a brusque low and middle register and a thin, vibrato-driven altissimo; at the same time, he unlinked those components from Ayler’s all-consuming fervor. Now that Ware is on the brink of becoming an era-defining stylist, the release of Grand Marquis, which pairs McPhee’s tenor with the impressive drumming of Johnny McLellan, provides insight into how McPhee has sidestepped the dilemma Ayler faced in his last years, as he attempted to escape his own cliches.

Attack is central to McPhee’s ongoing evolution: Throughout this program, McPhee establishes many gradations between a breathy whisper and a round, lustrous tone, let alone the rougher edges expected of post-Ayler tenor players. This gives McPhee great flexibility in shaping phrases: a razor-sharp line can suddenly diffuse with airbrushed softness; a gruff sputter gains flight with a fluttering texture; an otherworldly reed effect refocuses with a deep blues feel.

For the most part, McPhee employs all of these assets in a conversational tone on Grand Marquis. It’s not that McPhee can’t blow the roof off the joint at will; he does so convincingly during the program. McPhee is a fully matured artist who knows he has his audience’s full attention from the outset. He certainly has McLellan listening; the drummer’s ability to give even fragmentary statements a sure forward movement is an essential ingredient of the music. And just about everything Joe McPhee says on Grand Marquis is spellbinding.