That’s why there are certain artists I’ve taken a pass on over the years. Not because they are in any way unworthy, but merely because you can’t eat everything at the buffet, right? So, with unfair arbitrariness, I happen to have never listened to music by the prolific composer Elliot Sharp, by Mike Reed’s band People, Places & Things, or by free-improvising veteran Joe McPhee.
And this month new releases by all these artists came knocking on my door once again. Like future friends who keep inviting you to parties even though you’ve never even RSVPed in the past, these artists have a benevolent persistence. Really, it’s about time I gave them the time of day.
Here, then, I get my first taste of three strong jazz voices, each one now making my life a bit richer.
Elliot Sharp is the ultimate ignored artist on my list. His discography is huge and wildly diverse. A quick hop over to allmusic.com shows 66 albums under this name, and I know for a fact that undercounts by dozens. And while I’ve certainly heard some Sharp over the years, I have mostly systematically avoided him.
But no more. Here, on the wonderful Clean Feed Records, is a new disc recorded by Sharp’s trio in Brooklyn last year, the band filled out by Brad Jones on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Aggregat delivers a rich slice of Sharp’s sensibility—searing electric guitar as well as nuclear saxophone—but does so with a propulsive sense of fun. Take, just to start, the 3:44 of “The Grip”, which swings in a straight 4/4 jazz sense: walking acoustic bass and drums as fleet and straight as something from Elvin Jones.
Atop that traditional sound, however, is Sharp’s multi-directional electric guitar, improvising in ten directions at once. The playing is not so much beyond traditional harmony as it is daring: using the tone of metal and a non-linear melodic sense to explode musical ideas with true surprise. But each idea is interesting and followable, if not traditionally “pretty”. More importantly it’s fun and thrilling—the work of a musical mind that wants to create adventure.
Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things—Clean on the Corner
Mike Reed is a drummer based out of Chicago who has been performing, presenting music, and recording for the last 15 years. He has managed to show up just about everywhere in that context, and my resistance to listening to him—particularly his acclaimed band “People, Places & Things”, which has taken on the task of channeling the vibe of late-‘50s and early-‘60s jazz from the Chicago area—can only be described as silly and self-defeating.
This is music that sits on that delicious cliff’s edge between post-bebop tonality and adventurous freedom, jazz that is loosed from the moorings of harmonic constriction. Six of the eight tunes on Clean on the Corner are by Reed, with one zipping bopper by Chicagoan John Jenkins and a loping blues variation by Chicagoan Roscoe Mitchell. But all of them share a sensibility of gracious melody and momentum, combined with the open plain of freedom that allows the primary soloists to play whatever their heart requires in the moment.
So, dig the scurrying phrases of tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman on Mitchell’s “Old”, which solo plays out over a martial beat set up by Reed as bassist Jason Roebke plays a very staccato kind of walking quarter note. Mostly, this is a piano-less quartet, and so the solo is also accompanied by interjections from Greg Ward’s alto sax, setting up blues signposts along the way. The tune exudes a gleeful relaxation.
Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten—Brooklyn DNA
The final in my trio of foolishly neglected artists is Joe McPhee, the multi-instrumentalist who has been a part of the “free jazz” or improvised music scene since the late ‘60s. McPhee is another player whose sheer body of work is intimidating for its size and breadth. For many of us, nevertheless, his presence on the US scene was limited, with his most prominent work released on European labels (most notable hat Hut, which was founded to feature his work) and some of his best work coming in collaboration with younger artists (such as Ken Vandermark) in the ‘90s and since.
I’d been meaning to dig into those classic albums for a while when I caught McPhee live at a midnight show at the Blue Note in 2011 (which show I wrote about here, “An Infectious Case of Jazz Fanaticism”) when Clean Feed (again: thank you Clean Feed Records for releasing the music that so many of us need to hear) sent me a duet record by McPhee and Haker Flaten, how could I leave it on my table, unspun?
And in this latest work from McPhee there is everything that made him compelling in person—but it’s concentrated because of the lovely duet format with an obviously sympathetic partner. McPhee is the most sonorous and (one is tempted to say) “classical” of free jazz players. While he will honk or squeal or distort his sound if that is called for, McPhee is mostly a player possessed of a truly lovely tone. So, on “CBJC”, McPhee moves his alto sax in counterpoint with the bass, shifting tone from moment to moment, constantly capable of a rich sound or a more strident one—achieving fluid flurries of sound, long held tones, and even (very nearly at the track’s end) a seemingly impossible slide upward over an interval of a full third without losing tone.
Read the entire column here: Three Ive Ignored, Shame on Me: Elliot Sharp, Mike Reed & Joe McPhee