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Trio X: The Sugar Hill Suite

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Here are three more excellent albums from the tireless mind of Joe McPhee. The multi-faceted horn master recently turned 66, but his creative vault remains bottomless. Two sets by his group Trio-X (with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen) come from a three-day session at CIMP’s Spirit Room in October 2004. The Sugar Hill Suite alternates between slow meditations and swinging vamps. The opening “For Agusta Savage” is mournful, as McPhee traces an Ornette Coleman-ish tenor-sax pattern. Later, “Triple Play” and “Monk’s Waltz” are catchy yet reflective, at times even serene. This affinity for combining the somber with the upbeat peaks on the stunning 16-minute title track. Duval and Rosen begin alone, grinding out a ringing rhythm. An abrupt halt opens space for McPhee’s high-flying notes, followed by smooth swings between free-form thunder and near-silent subtlety.

On Moods, McPhee stretches further, playing flugelhorn and pocket trumpet, plus more rippling tenor sax. The trio’s patterns also widen: Often, one player will retreat completely, while “Dedicated to You, Joe” offers Duval alone. Despite these differences, Moods retains the thoughtful tone of The Sugar Hill Suite. The mostly free workout “Burning Wood” dazzles with its range of impulsive sounds, while McPhee growls like Ayler during a poignant take on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” The closing “A Valentine in the Fog of War” summarizes the Trio’s arsenal: dense drums, trembling bass and the soulful explorations of McPhee’s tenor sax.

Farther outside lies Remembrance, a four-part, 54-minute suite of adventurous music from a drumless quartet. At one point someone says, “We pretty much play what we want to play,” and nothing here refutes that claim. “Part I” opens with guitarist Raymond Boni and bassist Michael Bisio strumming and sawing into a hypnotic sound-cloud. McPhee enters on soprano sax, fluttering across Bisio’s long tones, and over 23 minutes straddles many moods without ever losing focus. Remembrance falters during “Part II,” when the “spoken music” of vocalist Paul Harding outstays its welcome. But “Part III” and “Part IV” recast the album’s atmospheric spell: “In the End There Is Peace” is a breathtaking Bisio solo, full of scrapes and crashes, while on “Remembrance (Closing),” McPhee sprints from blurting trumpet to tingling soprano, ending with pin-prick minimalism. Remembrance may not match the accomplishments of Trio-X, but its unique feel is another solid notch on McPhee’s artistic belt.