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Malik, McPhee & Robinson - Sympathy

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Artist: Malik, McPhee & Robinson

Album: Sympathy

Label: Boxholder

Review date: Jul. 6, 2004

Long-standing partnerships are an uncommon luxury in creative jazz. Current economics and aesthetics dictate that an ensemble’s longevity usually last months rather than years. By its very nature the music rewards a near constant need for rejuvenation with players continually forging and abandoning aggregations. In such a climate the ability to scope common ground quickly and effectively becomes an essential attribute. Poughkeepsie-based improvisor Joe McPhee is one of the most accomplished agents in this sort of accelerated bond-building. His busy recording schedule embodies this talent as he regular inserts his horns into a plentitude of fresh contexts. Trumpeter Raphé Malik may have fewer opportunities behind the mics, but he asserts a similarly hospitable nature when it comes to new situations.

Even with these credentials, I have to admit a sliver of skepticism when I first heard about the session that yielded Sympathy, a date that finds Malik and McPhee matching wits on trumpets for part of the program. I made an inference similar to that levied toward Jackie McLean’s Old and New Gospel, a contentiously-regarded Blue Note date that teamed the rebellious altoist with Ornette Coleman, but with the latter on rough hewn trumpet instead of his usual alto. These knee-jerk concerns lose credibility upon consideration that trumpet is McPhee’s first instrument, one he gained proficiency on as an adolescent, long before adding sax.

The short of it is that his brass chops are every bit on par with his substantial acumen on reeds. Malik sounds equally focused and unconditionally emotive much of the time. This is no doubt the partial result of the recording carrying the sad caveat of being dedicated to his late mother. Nine generous tracks, all the product of Malik’s compositional pen, nearly max out the disc’s running time at just shy of 80 minutes. Clean soaring tones and sharp ferrous lines are the regular vernacular and they coalesce into an enveloping and affecting listening experience.

McPhee and Malik take the sentiments of the disc’s title to heart, both in their interactions with each other and with drummer Donald Robinson. All three players exercise sympathy. Not in the usual connotation of the word implying pity or melancholy, but reflecting instead a mutual understanding and a loyal accord of ideas. An absence of bass leaves the harmonic void to be filled repeatedly by the supple and responsive twining of the two horns. Braids of layered notes weave to create a kaleidoscope of patterns that reveal both surface beauty and underlying complexity. The pair also spends a surprising amount of time apart, soloing individually over long stretches. Gradual development and a guiding melodic integrity persevere over any need to rush or overexpound.

Following their lead, Robinson works as colorist as well as fulcrum behind his kit, adding and subtracting in the capacious space of the studio and favoring mallets much of the time over rolling march-style rhythms. McPhee uncorks his soprano quite often too, logging more overall time on the straight horn than his trumpet, particularly early on. Don’t be dissuaded by the economy of this trio’s instrumentation. These three musicians represent royalty; their shared music beautifully reflective of the state of the jazz improviser’s art.

By Derek Taylor

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