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Joe McPhee with the Bill Smith Ensemble - Visitations

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Artist: Joe McPhee with the Bill Smith Ensemble

Album: Visitations

Label: Boxholder

Review date: Aug. 28, 2003

With Ayler By His Side

Joe McPhee has a gift. Throughout his career, he has simultaneously been the world’s greatest and worst talent scout. He worked largely with people that nobody had ever heard of; his first recorded appearance was as a sideman to the largely overlooked trombonist Clifford Thorton album Freedom and Unity, who would record with McPhee and then go on to almost completely disappear from the jazz landscape. Despite relying mainly on unknowns to fill out his ensembles, McPhee manages to keep a surprising level of consistency; he is one of those bandleaders who know how to mold a player to fit his needs. The past few years have spawned relationships with better-known jazz avant-garders such as Peter Brötzmann, Hamid Drake, DJ Spooky, and Mat Maneri, but the core of his aesthetic relies on using the lesser-knowns. And if you’re not sure why Joe McPhee matters, just remember, the consistently amazing HatHut record label was formed by Werner X. Uehlinger in 1975 just to release McPhee’s back catalog.

Visitations, recorded in 1983, released on Sackville in 1985, and just recently reissued on Boxholder, was McPhee’s first recording that wasn’t with his Po Music group. For this album, he enlisted the Bill Smith Ensemble, a pre-existing quartet consisting of Bill Smith on various upper register saxophones, David Prentice on violin, David Lee on bass, and Richard Bannard on the drums, (the Ensembles only other record of note features Wadada Leo Smith headlining). Only two of the compositions on the record are McPhee’s, but he takes possession of the three Smith Quartet originals and alters them accordingly. He’s so domineering that Bill Smith seems almost nonexistent; there is only room for one signature wind on this album, and it’s McPhee.

Visitations can also be viewed as an homage to/invocation of Albert Ayler. Though he had been dead for 13 years when this was recorded, he still haunted much of the avant-garde jazz world. On this album, McPhee and company are attempting to do nothing short of inducing a supernatural encounter with Ayler. Interestingly, this drive is led not by McPhee, but by violinist David Prentice; his trembling, slightly dissonant playing is most evocative of Alyer’s style, especially in “Eleuthera” where he imitates Ayler’s warbly, sustained tone. Prentice is truly the standout player on this album, after McPhee who is just as advanced and challenging as always. The two of them have such a wonderful improvisational rapport that it’s no surprise that McPhee would later steal Prentice away for his own early ’90s ensembles. The incantation that the group slowly weaves over the first half of the album comes to fruition on the haunting version of Ayler’s own “Ghosts”. You can almost feel the arrival of Ayler’s spirit when McPhee introduces the melody over a positively demented bed of violin screams, bass rumbles, and drum pops. With their conjuring done, McPhee and company move on to other spiritual issues, those of loss and redemption, and then finally allow Ayler to return from whence he came.

Musical resurrections are difficult things to achieve. One leaves this record exhausted, moved, perhaps a bit disturbed, and ultimately blown away. McPhee the talent scout succeeds again: Ayler serves as an ideal sideman on Visitations, his recycled sound molded to create a remarkable record full of nuance, while the Bill Smith Ensemble, as is always the case with a McPhee group, would soon fade back into obscurity. And like any good cowboy, McPhee would ride off into the sunset after a job well done, in search of a few more little-known players to lend a brief moment of brilliance.

By Dan Ruccia

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