Joe McPhee and Michael Zerang - "Congo Square Dances / Saints And Sinners (excerpt)" (Creole Gardens (A New Orleans Suite))
It’s amazing that after 40-plus years, Joe McPhee is showing no signs of slowing down. The reed and brass player continues to search out new playing partners (check out his remarkable meeting with the free organ trio Decoy), nurture working ensembles like Trio X or his participation in Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet as well as various sub-groupings of the members, and still find time to document potent solo sessions. From early on, McPhee has searched out duo partners whether with fellow reedists (Evan Parker, Andre Jaume, Joe Giardullo); bassists (Dominic Duval, Michael Bisio, and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten); or drummers (Hamid Drake, Paul Hession, Paal Nilssen-love, or John Heward.) Some of these meetings have delivered uneven results, like the recent collaboration with Chris Corsano, but all reveal a probing mind willing to push his partners while always mindful to avoid bowling them over with his prodigious technique and fecund musicality.
This meeting with Michael Zerang, was recorded live in New Orleans in September 2009, and is dedicated to master drummer Alvin Fielder. McPhee and Zerang have been working together in various contexts on and off since the late ’90s when they encountered each other in Brotzmann’s ensemble. While they’ve recorded in a trio setting with Fred Lonberg-Holm as the trio Survival Unit III, this is their first duo recording — and the two prove to be particularly apt partners.
What defines this music throughout is the marked distinctiveness of the two voices and their control of intonation, modulation, density, and trajectory. McPhee’s long-term dedication to solo explorations has provided him with an expansive sensitivity to the nuanced inflection of the entire range of his instruments as well as a keen ear for pacing. Zerang — in his work from full-on free jazz to collective spontaneous improvisations to his percussion solos to celebratory solstice celebrations with drummer Hamid Drake to participation in theater and performance events to composition and sound events — has developed an almost orchestral approach to his extended kit, drawing on the legacy of AACM and drummers like Fielder, Ed Blackwell and Phillip Wilson.
McPhee switches between pocket trumpet and alto, winding his free flights of burred and splayed abstractions, spirited lyricism and fiery energy across Zerang’s abraded textures, percussive details and lissome, tuned cascades. Things start out with pinched blats of McPhee’s pocket trumpet spattering off of the shuddering waves of Zerang’s rubbed and scoured drum heads. Zerang’s scratched details fill in around the edges of McPhee’s buzzing activity, and as the momentum builds, a snaking theme emerges from McPhee, first on trumpet and then shifting to alto, countered by Zerang’s stuttering free rhythms. From there, the two push off into a spontaneous dialog full of dynamic ebbs and flows from charged flights of roiling intensity to more open, timbral exchange. Throughout this set what comes through is a sense of two musicians synching up to create a true duo music.