Joe McPhee’s response to the challenge of making a new CD of solo music during COVID was to go at it head on, to address the present in its starkest aspects, to reach for comfort in the music of great composers, and to speak directly to the virus in no uncertain terms. The result is unlike any other of McPhee’s many records, a variety show of improvisations, favorite compositions, field recording, multi-tracking, incantation and recitation. After searching for the right studio-like setting with an ideal sound, but hampered by the restrictions of quarantine, he abandoned such hope and dug out a clothes closet in his Poughkeepsie house, where he could approach the task with an unconventional intimacy. In the dead of night, McPhee played luscious versions of compositions by Carla Bley and Charles Mingus, extrapolating on their melodies, even singing a Joni Mitchell lyric to Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” Elsewhere he plays harrowing tenor saxophone improvisations, a plaintive tone entering his melancholic melodic sensibility. On the title track, McPhee layers a dozen aching blues lines atop a field recording of the namesake highway, and in another piece he discovers an entire drum choir in the noise of dripping water on a tin plate in his sink, something he dedicates to Ruth Bader Ginzburg, whose death was announced moments before he noticed the environmental sound. On one of several very short, intense tracks, McPhee literally attempts to reverse the virus by intoning a spell-like chant: “Out, damned bug/Out, damned bug!” The package includes extensive track-by-track liner notes and a poem by McPhee, with artwork and design by Christopher Wool.
Joe McPhee, saxophone
Cover design and artwork by Christopher Wool.
CD design by David Khan-Giordano.
Produced by John Corbett and Christopher Wool.