Joe McPhee

Alone Together
(Corbett Vs. Dempsey)

Joe McPhee is a confirmed multi-instrumentalist. He first learned trumpet from his father as a youth, and first picked up a tenor saxophone when he was in his late 20s. Since then he’s taken on a couple dozen brass, reed, keyboard and electronic instruments, usually focusing on two or three at any given session. While he often mixes brass and reeds, as he does on Alone Together, the album still stands alone in his discography. Its tracks, which were recorded in 1974 and 1979, comprise nine overdubbed horn ensembles framed by two brief solos. With rare exception, McPhee has devoted himself to the immediacy of improvisation; most of his recordings are live, and in recent decades he has preferred to do his composing at the moment of performance.

But while this album differs methodologically from what McPhee does nowadays, it exposes fundamentals upon which he has built his art. McPhee has a rare capacity to reconcile approachable lyricism with challenging sonorities and extended techniques. Throughout these ensembles, he juxtaposes persuasive melodies with bracing textures and complex structures.

Though McPhee currently prefers free improvisation, he brings to the practice a sense of what it takes for a piece of music to be complete. This awareness is evident in the carefully wrought unisons and interlocking mechanisms that he sets in motion on the longer trio and quartet performances. Finally, the very existence of these pieces, which were recorded in his own home, reflects McPhee’s determination to make the best of any situation. Given the limited opportunities to perform publicly, he made music at home that was not merely practice, but a creative end in itself.

This is not a perfect recording. Despite some evident cleanup work, there are a few tape glitches. But rather like Sun Ra, who likewise valued diligent documentation over sonic refinement, McPhee seems determined to show us what he has done.

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