By Ken Waxman
One common shibboleth of mid-20th century creative music was that “jazz was a young man’s art.” Putting aside the sexism implicit in the statement, the idea denied jazz musicians the sort of late career acclaim that notated music masters like Pablo Casals and Vladimir Horowitz enjoyed. Times have more than changed. Expanded from the Baby Boomer cliché that “50 is the new 30” and its upwards affiliations, career longevity is now taken for granted in all serious music. These CDs recorded by improvised musicians in their 70s attest to that.
… Another improviser whose broad-mindedness and experimentation are not affected by age is saxophonist Joe McPhee, 76, who is recording and playing as prolifically now as he has since he started recording in the late 1960s. Ticonderoga (Clean Feed 345 CD cleanfeedrecords.com) finds him sharing space with a near-contemporary drummer, Charles Downs, 72, as well as pianist Jamie Saft and bassist Joe Morris, who are two or three decades younger. In this classic formation, McPhee glides between tenor and soprano, extruding textures weighty and coarse as lumber, but adding cunning aviary-pitched trills from the smaller horn. Like the mortar that bonds bricks, Downs’ collection of clunks and raps builds a strong foundation able to support any embellished strategy. Similarly, tremolo pulses and bow-sourced sprawls allow Morris to accompany and solo. Though like a tugboat alongside the ocean liner which is McPhee, Saft never abandons the background role. At the same time he uses calming harp-like string plucks and stops as frequently as keyboard tropes. With balladic tones transformed via altissimo screams into dagger-sharp notes as he plots an original path, the saxophonist’s skill is most obvious on Leaves of Certain and A Backward King. Like a mathematician scrawling numerous formulae on a blackboard, McPhee treats the first as a testing ground for exotic multiphonics, stretching out an assembly line’s worth of reed textures to form variegated patterns. Finally, alongside Saft’s yearning glissandi he settles on dual tones created by shouting into his saxophone’s body tube as he masticates the reed. The result is a finale that satisfies with no letdown in excitement. Cheerful, buoyed by Saft’s guileless patterning, A Backward King initially highlights Saft exposing so many keyboard colours that he could be figuratively knitting a rainbow-dyed scarf. A subsequent processional piano statement presages McPhee’s shift from snarky stridency to gentle ballad variations, until the two swiftly reverse the process like a car backing up, and construct a new garment out of half-puckered sax blasts and half inside-piano plucks. Climatically though, Morris’ background patterning produces a pluck so dexterous and directional that it soothes the others into moderato attachment and then silence.