Vision Festival 3 (2005, Arts for Art)/Underground Railroad [Atavistic, Unheard Music series]

I first heard of Joe McPhee in 2002 on Matthew Shipp's Optometry album. Then I bought the Atavistic label reissues of McPhee's earlier recordings from the ‘70s such as Nation Time (1970) and Trinity (1971) and realised that McPhee deserves to be celebrated more than he has. McPhee's vision as an artist is unshakeable. He began by following his heart and instincts and he still does to this day. Just check out his contribution to the Vision Festival 2005 (Arts For Art) with War Crimes and Battle Scars: Iraq by the Roy Campbell/Joe McPhee Quartet.

And then compare it against Underground Railroad, the title track of his debut album in 1969. The fury has not abated. And both tracks share a similar approach. Underground Railroad begins with furious drumming by Ernest Bostic which goes on for over six and a half minutes, before McPhee starts blowing. Then you hear free jazz giant Albert Ayler's spirit soaring high once again. The intensity and spiritual passion just flies in your face. On War Crimes and Battle Scars: Iraq, the track also begins with a long percussion intro before both Campbell (on trumpet) and McPhee (on soprano sax) come charging in.

What is rare about the Underground Railroad reissue (besides the fact that it was originally only a 500 LP edition) is that the bonus disc contains McPhee's first live performance on tenor saxophone six months before his debut recording. And the song subjects share the same anguish as his playing. Birmingham Sunday refers to a racist church bombing in 1963 where four black children were killed while Windy City Head Stompin' Blues reminds you of police brutality in the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.

Is it any wonder then that Swiss pharmaceutical engineer Werner X. Uehlinger started the Hat Hut freejazz/ avant garde label in 1975, just to record McPhee? Even before that, McPhee's painter friend, Craig Johnson began the CJR label in 1969 just to release McPhee.

During the ‘80s, McPhee met experimental composer and accordionist, Pauline Oliveros, whose theories of "deep listening" influenced his instrumental and electronic techniques. He also read Edward de Bono's book Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity, which inspired McPhee to "think sideways" in his musical improvisation. This resulted in his concept of "Po Music." McPhee explains "Po Music" as a "process of provocation" which can be used to "move from one fixed set of ideas in an attempt to discover new ones."

Now more than 50 albums later, McPhee has kept the faith and the spirit of free playing. As much as you can love McPhee's fiery blowing, you will also adore his tender side in the ballad, Harriet (on Underground Railroad). Here the sweetness of McPhee's other influence, trumpeter Don Cherry, comes into play. He finds different textures, other surfaces to reflect and explore his love. (9) - Philip Cheah


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