December 11, 2013 5:35 pm

Joe McPhee Survival Unit III, Café Oto, London – review

The free-improvising multi-instrumentalist’s gig was steeped in fire and energy

Joe McPhee is a free-improvising multi-instrumentalist veteran with many projects on the go. Born in 1939, he started playing trumpet when he was eight and by his mid-twenties was a brass all-rounder. But in the late 1960s he fell under the spell of saxophonists Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. He dedicated himself to the saxophone and free improvisation, and now has more than 100 albums on his CV.

The trio he presented at this gig, Survival Unit III, formed in 2006 but their two sets were steeped in the fire, focus and collective energy of an earlier time. Improvisations arced from scattered abstractions to furious, dense textures, as McPhee’s brittle trumpet or abrasive, warm-centred sax spiralled to a climax. Underneath, Fred Lonberg-Holm attacked his cello like a demon and doctored its tone with abstract crackles and percussive pops, while percussionist Michael Zerang clattered and clanged with a tremendous sense of pulse.


IN Music

The first set started with drummer Zerang conjuring birdsong from a child’s wooden toy and Lonberg-Holm’s ghostly bowed cello in support. When McPhee finally entered with a whispered breath of pocket trumpet, the image conjured was of an isolated cabin in a subarctic wasteland. A funereal pulse emerged, cello added an off-kilter riff and McPhee wove spiky trumpet through the gaps. The rhythm tightened, McPhee switched to sax, abstract runs broke into howls and then, all of a sudden, the band subsided to a moan and stopped. Their second improvisation morphed into a Spanish-tinged theme and their third was built on trumpet whispers and squeaks and the scrape of an eraser rubbed on a snare-drum skin.

But it wasn’t all phonics and thunder and rattle and doom. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was dedicated to Nelson Mandela – McPhee on sax savoured each phrase – and, as a finale, the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” swirled out of a mist of abstraction.

The trio follow a fairly well-trodden free jazz path, but their sound is distinctive, their music fresh and their group discipline and energy high. This gig ended with a deserved double encore, the first piece built on a blues holler, the second a solo sax whisper of percussively thwacked pads.

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