Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joe McPhee & Ken Vandermark: A Meeting in New York

The Stone is a vanguard not-for-profit music venue, founded by composer/musician and MacArthur Genius Award winner John Zorn. The space is located on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street on the Lower East Side in New York City. Described by some as a hole in the wall, it is a pretty well-designed one. The interior walls are brick but they are covered with black velvet curtains that fall from a high ceiling to a concrete floor. The room is about two and a half times as long as it is wide. At one end of the space, brick is still exposed; a small room with a white door has been built in the corner. Black plastic folding chairs fill the room. The wall seen on entering is covered with sheet-rock, painted white, and on it are displayed Peter Gannuskin's black and white photographs of the musicians who have curated performances throughout its six year history.

On March 18, 2011, a landmark event occurred...landmark, because Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark have never played in a duet before, except on those rare occasions during their tours with Peter Brรถtzmann's Tentet, when these two musicians can and have.

Before the music began, McPhee told the story of how he and Vandermark began their musical relationship. In his written words, the story goes like this:
In 1993, there was an interview in "Option" magazine with Ken Vandermark in which he had really marvelous things to say about my music and its influence on him.  When he began playing the saxophone his dad gave him a copy of my Hat Hut recording Tenor and told him if he was going to play tenor, he should check it out.  For better or worse he took the advice. It so happened that I was in Vancouver, B.C., for the jazz Festival as was Ken and I ran into him as he was boarding a bus en route to his concert and I thanked him for his kind remarks.  He invited me to the concert and his band proceeded to play one of my compositions from Tenor, "Goodbye Tom B."  I was not only impressed at their version, but it was the first time I had ever heard anyone play my music, and it was obvious that Ken was seriously into it for some time.  This was not done to impress me.

In 1995, Ken invited me to Chicago for my first visit there. I arrived, we met, went into a studio and recorded our first CD, A Meeting In Chicago, all in a single take with no rehearsal, before playing our first concert later that night at The Empty Bottle.

With that preface, the musical interchange between these two reedsmen commenced. It was almost as if a father and his son were playing together. Vandermark seemed to soften in volume on his tenor deferring to McPhee, when, in fact, he provided a strong assured backdrop in front of which McPhee could launch himself on soprano sax. Instrumentally, the match was perfect. The high and the lows. The sparkling with the blustery. McPhee held forth with distinct phrases that became one entity, which Vandermark complemented harmonically, often merging with McPhee's sound. They did not imitate each other but carried strikingly different weights and interwove musical lines that created a whole densely packed body of abstract song.

Witnessing the two men listen consciously to each other was thrilling. McPhee kept his eyes closed the entire time; Vandermark did as well, though at times cast a meditative gaze towards the floor. Both were concentrating on the togetherness of their mutual sound; both were exercising their sensitivity to each other.

After each break, they changed their instruments. With those changes came the explorations of new integration of other timbres.
After playing the soprano, McPhee switched to a silver Holton pocket trumpet, which was his Father's. This was the first time he had ever played it. Vandermark picked up his clarinet.

McPhee then revisited his soprano while Vandermark continued on the clarinet. This pairing was the most exquisite of all; the two instruments seared the air. The musicians played round and round each other. Vandermark turned red in the face, he was blowing so hard, not only to support his circular breathing, but also to maintain his dedicated presence, which was more than significant in response to McPhee's endlessly curving phrasings.

McPhee sought out the resonance of the space with his horn. Back on tenor, Vandermark refrained from playing with an extreme forward motion, where his instrument is so far in front of him in the metaphorical sense that he needs to expend an overabundance of energy to keep up with himself. Rather, he demonstrated an extraordinary awareness of how McPhee drew the lines, as they flickered, and popped, became boisterous, lyrical and melodic, even at one point introducing the theme from Coltrane's "After the Rain."

The passion they both felt was palpable. McPhee shone in his ever-present capacity for varying the extent to which he presses forward or quiets down, repeats his phrases or invents new ones. The rhythm maintained by the two was introverted. It existed as an inherent factor, an underpinning, in the structure of the improvisation. Only once, when McPhee tapped the mouthpiece on his pocket trumpet, was an overt rhythmic gesture detectable.

In visual art terms, the music simulated Cubism and Post-Impressionism at the same time. The two musicians contrasted each other with drastically opposed elements and directions or they completed each other, just as a bright yellow swatch of paint juxtaposed with one that is blue on the same surface fools the eyes as being green from a distance.

The music that McPhee and Vandermark played with the bassist Kent Kessler, in A Meeting In Chicago, in 1995, was inspired, evoking the sparks that occur when a warm collegial relationship begins. The blending was so fluid that the musicians shared only their compatibility. At the Stone, the contexts had changed. Since 1995, McPhee has become well-known in the United States because Vandermark removed him from his purely European audience by bringing him to Chicago; and Vandermark's career has skyrocketed not only in Chicago, but internationally. The music at the New York gig exuded confidence, and an evenness of expression that the Chicago recording only hinted at.

This concert displayed a camaraderie and intimacy rarely seen in the improvised music world. It is a well-known fact that McPhee is a romantic and the truest of friends. Yet, Vandermark guards the projection of his feelings and is not effusive. His feelings transfer to the fixed vigor within his playing.

At the end of the evening, the two musicians embraced just as they had at the beginning, after McPhee's verbal introduction when he described Vandermark as one of the greatest guys on earth. The night had revealed that Master and Apprentice may part ways in continuing the development of their own voices, their own groups, their own sounds; yet, they can always reunite in unparalleled splendor.

Text and Photos: copyright 2011 Lyn Horton

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