By Jason Bivins
Grade inflation might sometimes be a reality when reviewing records with your faves on them, but it’s hard not to conclude that whenever Joe McPhee is on a recording he bumps it up a notch or three. The unpredictable and highly resourceful keyboardist Jamie Saft isn’t the first guy you’d think of for a session like this, but alongside the understated Charles Downs and Joe Morris (as a bassist), it’s a lineup that makes for an intriguing amalgam of improvisational approaches.
The four tracks aren’t mere blowing sessions, but almost like textural cycles with loads and loads of space. This is evident from Downs’ soft tattoos opening “Beyond Days,” a subtle vehicle for McPhee’s tenor lyricism and Morris’ exploratory bass. This piece, like the others, unfolds patiently and moves through passages of heat and density (with Saft bursting on piano while McPhee and Morris churn) as well as more pointillistic features. Downs is almost too muted in places (no great fault in a session like this), but it’s when Saft lights into a solo – making great, and mercurial use of preparations – that the drummer’s taut style makes sense. Elsewhere, one of the record’s pleasures is its earthiest track, “Simplicity of Man.” Its woozy and bluesy opening features great stuff from McPhee, all angular phrases and bell notes, like something from a fractured ritual. The group does work up the lather in time, and in the thick of the music’s bustling, shouting intensity (with Morris especially driving things), McPhee is compelling as he weaves all kinds of textural variations into his high heat.
The lengthy soprano piece “Leaves of Certain” is a nice changeup, with soft whistles and nice billowing piano chords (again deftly laced with preparations). And closing with “A Backward King,” the band starts off with a wounded balladic feeling that, to my ears, recalls Taylor and Lyons in Copenhagen over a half century ago. While not absolutely everything works in this compelling meeting of quite different improvisers, it’s that very sense of reaching and uncertainty across these tracks that makes Ticonderoga a winner overall.