The great improviser Joe McPhee is 76 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, ever since his career was energized in the mid-90s by a group of players (including Chicago’s Ken Vandermark) who were half his age, McPhee’s been more active that at any other point in his vaunted career. He’s old enough to be the grandfather of the members of the high-energy European trio called Universal Indians, with whom he performs Wednesday at Constellation—but on the pairing’s recent album Skullduggery (Clean Feed) there’s zero generation gap.
If anything, the Norwegian rhythm section of bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Tollef Østvang—who will be back in town next week to play in their superb quartet with Chicago cornetist Josh Berman and reedist Keefe Jackson on Monday—and the Amsterdam-based, Wyoming-bred saxophonist John Dikeman have to exert themselves to keep up with McPhee. Throughout the album McPhee is instantly recognizable, particularly his saxophone lines, which toggle between a kind of aspirated tonal marbling and a gruff vocalic quality. While McPhee can blow as hard as anyone, more often than not he tends to cool down Dikeman’s propensity for fire-breathing excess in this context, and the group is all the better for it. Things get intense, but those moments tend to be powerful flare-ups rather than deafening indulgences.
All four pieces on Skullduggery are group improvisations rife with peaks and valleys, and that landscape makes it especially easy to hear how the four players interact and listen. For today’s 12 O’Clock Track you can check out the album’s closing piece “Wanted,” a performance frequently on the edge of explosion. For its first half McPhee plays puckered pocket trumpet, but then he joins Dikeman on sax and they seriously lock in.