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Joe McPhee

Since first emerging in the late '60s, Joe McPhee has been heralded as one of jazz's most talented multi-instrumentalists and greatest improvisers. He has also become one of its most emotional and daring composers. McPhee first encountered jazz while serving in Germany with the U.S. Army. Originally a trumpet player, he took up the saxophone shortly after he began playing professionally, and has since gone on to investigate a wide range of instruments, including the pocket cornet, clarinet, flugelhorn, piano, and even electronics. It's this spirit of voracious creative inquiry that has marked all of his work to date.

Many of McPhee's early recordings as a bandleader, including Underground Railroad (1969), Nation Time (1970), and Trinity (1971) (all originally on the obscure CjR label), are informed by the Black Power movement of the '60s and '70s. Underground Railroad, pointedly "dedicated to the black experience on planet Earth," virtually disappeared on impact, as only 500 copies were ever pressed, but thanks to Atavistic's "Unheard Music" series, it's available once again, along a special bonus section documenting McPhee's public debut on the tenor sax during an inspired afternoon performance with his larger group, the Contemporary Improvisational Ensemble, at the same New York monastery where he would record Underground Railroad six months later.

You can hear the spirit of black nationalism on "Nation Time," recorded at a December 1970 concert at Vassar College's Urban Center for Black Studies. The piece was conceived as a tribute to the great black playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist Amiri Baraka (aka Leroi Jones). As McPhee puts it in the album's liner notes, Baraka's answer to the question "What time is it?" was "nation time" -- that is, time to build an ideological and political nation of black solidarity. Starting with the impassioned call and response of "What time is it? Nation time," McPhee builds a frenzied composition that employs both the melodicism of traditional jazz and the innovations of pioneers like Sun Ra and late period Miles Davis. It's a powerful, spontaneous piece -- distinguished by its shuffling, mind-altering rhythms and gravity-defying improvisations -- which still feels like the future thirty years later.

McPhee recorded his next album, Trinity, in a church parish hall in late 1971 with pianist Mike Kull (who also appears on Nation Time) and percussionist Harold E. Smith. The trio referred to itself as "Survival Unit II." For McPhee the recording was a formal breakthrough on the tenor sax, as the presence of the other two players and absence of the traditional bassist liberated his improvisations. As he says in the liner notes of the Trinity re-release, he no longer felt the need to emulate his idols -- Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and others -- but sought instead to become comfortable in his own abstract, blues-derived style. The colors and shapes are clearer and brighter than ever, as evidenced by the soulful 16-minute epic, "Delta," marked by Kull's hallucinatory electric piano and McPhee's liquid tenor revelations.

In the mid '70s, Swiss entrepreneur Werner X. Uehlinger became so enamored of McPhee's music that he formed a label, Hat Hut, for the express purpose of recording McPhee's work. The imprint became McPhee's home for a number of years. In the '80s, a relationship with avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros inspired McPhee to experiment with more extended instrumental techniques and even to dabble in electronics.

While McPhee has been a household name for decades in Europe -- especially Switzerland -- he has remained a relative unknown in the U.S. until recently. A series of solo recordings and performances, collaborations with celebrated reedsmen Ken Vandermark and Peter Brötzmann, and work in the improv group Trio X have helped garner McPhee more attention in recent years. Atavistic's re-releases of Underground Railroad, Nation Time, and Trinity (as part of its "Unheard Music" series) have further helped establish McPhee as one of the most important innovators in free jazz history.