In the many years that I’ve known Craig Johnson, his appetite for music — the kind one would expect to find among college students, debating the merits or lineage of any particular artist into the wee hours — remains insatiable, relieved perhaps by an expansive and steadily growing music and film collections, a neatly arranged assembly of CDs, vinyl and DVDs that is encyclopedic in scope for its representation of certain American artists. We’ve talked ourselves into such hours, and quite often the discussion settles to a topic of shared interest: Joe McPhee. And who better to talk things McPhee than with Johnson, who, before there was Hat Hut Records, introduced the man’s music to the scene with back to back to back releases on his own CjR record label, which gave us such heavy-energy, genre-smashing sides as Nation Time and Trinity. The discussions have been many, always animated and full of relevant and fascinating McPhee anecdotes that date back to Coltrane’s funeral.
In those many years wading through McPhee’s discography, talking up the nuggets, the recording that came up the most is the one I’d never heard and had never been released. In a past interview I held with McPhee — on which Johnson kibbitzed — Joe mentioned these recordings as something particularly special and a project he personally held in high regard. Following the interview, at dinner at Brad’s Swingside Cafe in Seattle, Craig first emphasized his own fondness of the music. And so it would go.
The music in question comes from two concerts held in France in May of 2000, and features McPhee with four bassists. McPhee designated this short series, “The Albert Ayler 2000 Project.” It would come to no surprise for McPhee’s followers that he should construct a vehicle to pay tribute to Ayler, who stands possibly highest among his inspirations and heroes — it was Ayler’s influence, after all, that would incite then trumpeter McPhee to pick up the saxophone and become the versatile multi-instrumentalist we know him to be. But four bassists sharing the same stage? Even for the challenge-oriented McPhee, who himself created new chapters in the sprawling book of late 70’s and early 80’s “electric jazz” — even as that genre began to die — such instrumentation in live performance, even today, logistically and acoustically, was ambitious at the least. It was terribly interesting, too, the leader situated among his own “international bass quartet… to celebrate rather than imitate, to find the spirit and ’soar on Albert’s wings.’”
The music, recorded in front of crowds at the Europa Jazz Festival, Le Mans, and at Action Jazz (Pannonica), Nantes, sat fermenting on the shelf for nine years, and in my mind became more a thing of legend than something we’d eventually hear.
But the last few years have shown a particularly active Craig Johnson, who, after effectively closing the book on running a label thirty-five years ago, has resumed publishing on his CjR imprint, and once again in the exclusive interest of McPhee’s music. CjR-7 is Angels, Devils & Haints, a two-disc set that includes the complete recordings from those French concerts.
To say the recordings are a two-hour tribute to Ayler is only partially-true. Let’s return to the premise of four bassists (Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Paul Rogers, and Claude Tchamitian), each with his own distinctive style. How they negotiate their individual contributions is demonstrated in full on the title track (among the 55-minute track’s high points is a high-register arco departure affecting a rough string quartet), though it’s a mystery as to who’s playing what. Not that it matters; this is a communicative exercise and these players have enough experience and discipline to know that competition for holes to fill would likely have led to a quagmire. That said, the engineering of the bass audio is everything one would hope it to be, fully dynamic and with enough clarity for us to acoustically separate one musician from the other, even in cases where two basses occupy the same channel or stereo field. The aural positioning of the bassists is not included with the written details on the release, which is kind of a drag since volumes of extended techniques are employed throughout. Even completists will have difficulty recognizing a given bass player, though Bisio’s unmistakable, aggravated bridge bowing is evident in places.
Less ambiguous is the tribute to Ayler that stays underway from start to finish. There is no better interpreter of Ayler’s music, in intonation or in spirit, than Joe McPhee, and where he does channel his forebear, it is accomplished without overcooking or understatement. For the majority of the performances he sticks to either tenor or alto, in natural tones that visit multiple octaves, and with occasional detours into vibrato-laden phrases reminiscent of Ayler. Where McPhee employs pocket trumpet, it’s done provocatively so, as heard amidst a trebly pizzicato firestorm during a restless coda on “Angels and Other Aliens.” The leader briefly lays out of a particularly beautiful arco statement that comprises the final quarter of “The Gift (for Donald Ayler),” a piece with a moderate pace that most closely touches that spirit that brought about the occasion. “Ol’ Man River” features McPhee in a solo reading of the Kern & Hammerstein standard, decades removed from the source, and lyrical to the point of narrative. And what Ayler project would be complete without an appraisal of “Goin’ Home,” in which the full group doesn’t weave tradition as much as they venerate the practice of it.
To be sure, this is far more a McPhee record than it is an Ayler tribute, although the leader might disagree. Knowing Ayler’s music certainly lends to one’s appreciation of the affair. However, the recognition of Ayler as an immovable component of McPhee’s heritage is even more critical to the music’s essence, and maybe this recording is the definitive acknowledgment of that fact. Hearing him under the influence of Ayler and in the company of musicians who’ve been with him throughout the journey, for which Ayler himself was the catalyst, is a fitting mark forty years downstream of Underground Railroad (CjR-1). Why it went unreleased for so long isn’t clear, but time often works to the benefit of such things. If that’s the case, we can assume the music’s aged rather nicely. And Craig Johnson’s taste hasn’t aged a bit.