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Joe McPhee
Nation Time: The Complete Recordings
Corbett Vs Dempsey CD 011

Though very little art happens in complete isolation, there is something to be said for a degree of separation for creating lasting work. Being outside of the New York jazz scene encouraged deep investigations for figures like Bill Dixon (Bennington, VT), Leo Smith (New Haven, CT), or John Jamyll Jones (Boston), to say nothing of the artist collectives in Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Detroit. Though it’s a short train ride from Manhattan, it’s easy to imagine that Poughkeepsie, New York was a world away from the bustling energy of Manhattan and Brooklyn – especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Poughkeepsie had a small community of jazz musicians working the Black clubs, bars and university circuit, perhaps not too far afield from what other bedroom communities in New York might’ve had at the time. These regional musicians included drummers Ernest Bostic and Bruce Thompson, keyboardists Herbie Leaman and Mike Kull, bassist Tyrone Crabb, guitarist Davey Jones, and saxophonists Joe McPhee, Otis Greene, and Reggie Marks.

A native of Miami, Florida, McPhee had experience in New York City’s jazz scene. After getting out of the Army, he befriended the Ayler brothers and was mentored by Ornette Coleman and brass multi-instrumentalist Clifford Thornton. Though better known as a saxophonist, McPhee’s first instrument was the trumpet and his debut on wax was as a sideman on Thornton’s excellent Freedom & Unity LP (Third World LP 9636), recorded the day after John Coltrane’s funeral. McPhee continued to commute down to the city in the early ‘70s, but he was based in Poughkeepsie, working at a ball bearing factory and teaching adjunct classes in Black Music at Vassar College, which became coed in 1969.

It was in this environment of radicalized liberal arts education during the Vietnam War era that McPhee’s Nation Time was recorded. The LP was released on Craig Johnson’s CjR imprint, the second record to feature McPhee as leader. Over two days in December 1970 at Vassar College, the saxophonist convened a five-to-eight-piece ensemble including Kull, Bostic, Thompson, Crabb, Greene, Leaman and Jones for a series of concert and studio recordings. Nation Time was originally issued as CjR number 2, and re-released on the now-defunct Atavistic Unheard Music Series fourteen years ago. Now, Corbett vs. Dempsey, an art gallery and label in Chicago, has seen fit to release it in a boxed-set version with two full discs of extra material and the first CD issue of Black Magic Man, a “Nation Time Volume Two” of sorts that inaugurated the Swiss Hat Hut label in 1975.

After a call-and-response exhortation from McPhee to the audience – the iconic “what time is it?! Nation time!” – the quintet launches into the title tune, a charged yet simple riff that recalls a rougher-hewn Miles Davis electricity, mercurially grounding the ensemble and encouraging open flights. Electric bass and two drummers provide a loose, crackling groove lightly dancing behind Kull’s spry piano. He quickly shifts to an electric instrument, losing none of his bubbly lyricism, as Thompson and Bostic shove and grapple around him. McPhee hadn’t been playing tenor more than two years by the time this date was waxed, yet his blistering, gruff and bright phraseology is already apparent and commanding, related to but not entirely beholden to Coltrane or Ayler. Following a brief tenor-trumpet duet (with Crabb picking up the brass duties), the ensemble launches into a fierce rave-up, McPhee shouting vocally as well as through his horn, advancing and receding in the mix as a stew of rhythm and plugged-in flecks center the field and nudge it towards a dry, rockish conclusion.

“Shakey Jake” is probably the main reason for Nation Time’s hall-of-fame status in funk DJ circles, not to mention hall-of-fame prices on the used vinyl market. The core group is augmented by guitarist Davey Jones, organist Herbie Leaman and alto saxophonist Otis Greene for a twelve-minute trance-inducing groove over which liquid alto and brusque tenor interlock. The feel is perhaps Fela-like, a Hudson River answer to Afro-rock “play it all night” jams. But “Shakey Jake” isn’t just a jam – the ensemble is too incisive for that, and the saxophonists’ questing volleys point to this music as decidedly post-Coltrane in its thrust. Jones’ guitar playing is wiry and, if not Richard Martin or Sonny Sharrock-level unhinged, at least incredibly tense and gritty. The closing “Scorpio’s Dance” is a group improvisation with the quintet, McPhee starting off on trumpet against yawing arco bass, percussion and piano. Switching to tenor, he eggs the group on from modal plateaus to a cutting, twin-engined push as the leader brings snatches of “Caravan” into this decidedly free landscape.

Black Magic Man presents a much more “out” side of this group’s music in many respects. This CD issue restores the title track to its original 21-minute length and adds two brief alternate takes of “Song For Lauren.” Nation Time is a genuinely accessible record and fairly economical in its approach, whereas the music on Black Magic Man, recorded in the same setting, is a bit more sprawling and a tougher nut to crack. The title improvisation begins with a seven-minute salvo of paint-peeling tenor, upper register caterwauls and muscular runs against stacked blocks of drumming. While McPhee didn’t record a bevy of tenor-drum duets until more recently, his early LPs do feature extraordinary workouts with percussionists like Harold E. Smith and Makaya Ntshoko, and if it’s a little less concise, the beginning of “Black Magic Man” certainly fits into that category. Adding bass and piano, the proceedings become slightly sparser and more diffuse with Kull exploring micro-runs before electrically solidifying his phrases (after the original LP cut the track off) atop the boppish chug of Thompson and Bostic. As on “Scorpio’s Dance,” McPhee’s tenor obliquely references Tizol as the group weaves together cellular nuggets and dark, slinking progressions.

The following tune, co-written by Kull and McPhee, is positively pastoral free balladry reminiscent of late Coltrane, the pianist bringing chunky gospelized fragments and lush modality into play alongside the leader’s poetically explosive declarations. Originally occupying the LP’s second side, “Hymn of the Dragon Kings” is also restored to its original length, and begins with toe-curling soprano and synthesizer rattle presaging McPhee’s work with electronic musician and composer John Snyder. His chirps, curlicues and digs don’t quite exhibit the surefootedness of the tenor, though it’s interesting to hear McPhee experimenting with the straight horn. Oddly, the original cut-off point for the LP side marks the spot where McPhee and company delve into a funky, R&B-laced hip-shaker that, while perhaps not as immediately inspired as “Shakey Jake,” is still rather enjoyable and far afield from what Hat Hut founder Werner X. Uelingher was looking for.

Even more music – an extra eighty minutes’ worth – from the December 1970 sessions fills up a third disc, including another take of “Hymn of the Dragon Kings” and the lengthy free piece “Sunshower,” which utilizes the expanded ensemble of “Shakey Jake” in a much more avant-garde context, beginning with an unaccompanied alto-tenor duet that beautifully blends Otis Greene’s keening alto with McPhee’s more burnished approach. As organ, guitar and rhythm fall in line, Greene exhibits a haranguing edge, searing obsessively atop the gooey motor of dual drummers and keyboardists, which are not altogether different from the more outside work of Larry Young. The disc opens with a take of Pee Wee Ellis’ “Cold Sweat,” McPhee encouraging the audience with “if you feel like dancing, get up!” and shouting “uh-uh’s” like a tenor-wielding James Brown and giving the drummers ample room to keep the crowd warm. McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation” follows and is rendered with a harrowing, elegiac roughness and cements Kull’s status as a pianist whose dusky sensitivity and spiky tendencies are worthy of attention.

A year before the Nation Time and Black Magic Man sessions were waxed, McPhee, Greene, Leaman, Crabb, Thompson and Bostic recorded sessions at Vassar and a Poughkeepsie bar called The Paddock, including an early version of “Nation Time” and renditions of “My Funny Valentine,” “Bag’s Groove,” and “Milestones.” The clutch of standards that make up most of this disc finds the group occupying a place between hard bop and free music – McPhee’s trumpet playing is crackling and sinewy, ready to inhabit a world of pure sound, and though the other musicians are more “in the pocket” in their approach, they seem willing to follow the leader’s movements. This set presents a very clear vision of McPhee’s work as a trumpeter, as on these standards the tenor playing is left to Otis Greene. Bostic’s shimmering, atonal vibraphone accents on “Milestones” remind one of Bobby Hutcherson’s multi-directional explorations of the mid-60s, and as a soloist he moves between isolated percussive fantasias and bop-derived melodicism. While McPhee often relates that his peers in the Poughkeepsie jazz scene barred him from sitting in and were too conservative, some of these players are clearly adventurous and willing, and it was entirely possible for them to move from hip, off-kilter modernism to free jazz and open-ended jazz-rock. While McPhee is clearly the leader throughout, these Vassar sessions are a testament to the fact that, whether Nation Time music or Po Music, this music bears the fruit of collectivity.
–Clifford Allen

Cuneiform Records

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