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Album Review

Trinity is the second installment of Joe McPhee's early work that's been re-released in Atavistic's wonderful Unheard Music series of extremely worthy yet rarely noted music originally recorded on LP. The first was the widely acclaimed Nation Time. This trio date from 1971 follows that recording chronologically. After Nation Time, McPhee's bassist Tyrone Crabb left the band to pursue "political ambitions," and McPhee was frustrated in his attempt to find a replacement. He hung it up. Good thing. Trinity, originally on the CjR label, is a powerful dose of outer space jazz, blues, and avant soul from a master of virtually any instrument with a bell. It was recorded in the parish hall of a Catholic Church. (McPhee's first album, Underground Railroad, was recorded in a monastery.) It is also worthy to note that, at nearly an hour of playing time, the original recordings had to be "groove-crammed" to make them fit on a single vinyl LP without the needle jumping out of the grooves. In the expanded CD format, the album is heard for the first time with its original sound from the master tapes. There are only three tracks on the album, the first of which is the spatially expansive "Ionization." McPhee first picks up a trumpet and then immediately goes to his tenor, accompanied only by drummer Harold Smith. While at first this sounds like a duet in the manner of Coltrane's Interstellar Space with Rashied Ali, it quickly moves into a sonic researching of the parameters of that space. Smith moves through polyrhythms at blinding speed while McPhee tries recontextualizing them without overcompensating. Finally, Mike Kull enters pianissimo, throwing the energy into a tailspin of dynamic response. As Kull's piano becomes a counterrhythm, McPhee drops out for a bit to let them stretch. And the weave is tight, yet free and clear. When he finally does reenter, it's at full speed before bringing his trademark slow, deep-soul lyricism into the improvising with both tenor and pocket cornet. Quotes from Coltrane's "India" send the work into the ether. "Astral Spirits" has Kull playing an electric piano, which in 1971 was still an instrument with unexplored textural and sonic palettes. McPhee's tenor playing here is reminiscent of Jerry Butler if he were an "out" soul singer. His playing is rooted in groove and nuance. Kull carries the front line for most of the track while Smith dances on his cymbals and McPhee slips ever deeper emotionally into the spacious ambience provided by his bandmates. His trumpet and tenor playing is signified by his long, drawn out lines and harmonies. As if this weren't enough, there is the expressionist work "Delta," with Kull getting into an avant funk. McPhee goes modal, playing deep blues and Memphis soul without regard for bars and measures. Think of Archie Shepp on "Cry of My People" or "Attica Blues," touched by Fred McDowell's slide playing, and you get the idea. This music is a swamp of ideas, curling and churning in the heat, the skeletal remains of dead musics floating all around so the trio can pluck their bones to derive sustenance in the act of creation. "Delta" is grease and fire personified, the cry of a bluer than black blues, cut through the belly with ghostly funk and a free jazz aesthetic. It slips in the back door almost undetected and wails its gospel-like roar as it exits, leaving the listener stunned into silence, wondering if what was just heard can even be believed. On Trinity, the listener travels the history of sound through time and space. All that's left to do is nod silently in affirmation or weep and gnash your teeth in defeat. Revelatory. Glorious.


Born: 03 November 1939 in Miami, FL

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Since his emergence on the creative jazz and new music scene in the late '60s and early '70s, Joe McPhee has been a deeply emotional composer, improviser, and multi-instrumentalist, as well as a thoughtful conceptualist and theoretician. Born on November 3, 1939, in Miami, FL, McPhee first began playing the trumpet at age eight. McPhee continued on that instrument through high school and then in a U.S. Army band stationed in Germany; during his Army stint, he was first introduced to traditional jazz....
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Trinity, Joe McPhee
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