A busy week in jazz with Joe McPhee, Tim Stine, and the Cookers

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This week the terrific label operated by Chicago art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey released four titles, including an album from singular Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. Ever since CvsD started operating like a proper label (instead of merely putting out an occasional title related to an exhibition), it's lavished attention on McPhee—nearly a third of its catalog is devoted to his music, including previously unreleased material and reissues of long-out-of-print records. This week's is Nuclear Family, a fantastic 1979 duo with French reedist André Jaume, a longtime McPhee collaborator. They recorded the album for Swiss label Hat Hut, but it hasn't been released till now.

The indefatigable McPhee shows little sign of his 76 years, and these days he's usually in much younger company, playing with groups such as the Thing and Universal Indians. He's always maintained a deep connection to jazz history, though, and Nuclear Family is dominated by searing versions of classics by the likes of Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman. McPhee and Jaume play with a tight connection, tackling the familiar material with a preternatural grace that allows them to move well beyond the songs' themes—individually and together—without losing the thread. The arrangement of Monk's "Evidence" articulates the melody with a terse series of ascending and descending stabs, and its substantial multilinear improvisation moves from tightly coiled phrases into sensual legato curves before snapping right back into the melody with telepathic precision. A tender reading of Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge" reveals just as much about the musicians' rapport.

On the moody improvisation "Nuclear," McPhee plays his pocket cornet through a clarinet mouthpiece, and his brittle, striated tone, which snakes between upper-register squeaks and guttural drones, plays off the the flurries and swoops of Jaume's somber bass clarinet—and then McPhee changes the complexion of the track by switching to a cornet mouthpiece. Below you can hear the opening track: a lovely version of the idiosyncratic Mingus number "Pithecanthropus Erectus" where the duo hint at the sweeping drama and energy of the original recording with wonderfully rheumy interaction. McPhee is in town to celebrate the release of Nuclear Family, performing solo and reading his poetry at a free performance this evening at Corbett vs. Dempsey.


On Saturday at the Hungry Brain
, guitarist Tim Stine plays a release party for a self-titled trio recording that Austin label Astral Spirits put out on cassette last month. Stine shared the recording with me more than a year ago, and it still sounds just as great to me now. This past summer I wrote about the album (which features bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly) when Astral Spirits presented a two-day festival at the Brain—Stine played at the fest with Hatwich and Adam Vida, who subbed for Rosaly (who now lives in Amsterdam). That performance convinced me that the guitarist is one of the most exciting and original musicians emerging from Chicago's bustling scene. Most jazz guitarists play electric and augment their sound with a variety of effects, but Stine plays acoustic with no effects at all—just moderate amplification that gives his tone a bit more bite, and that only at live shows, not when he records. You can generally hear exactly what he's doing.

I get plenty of Derek Bailey from Stine's tangled-up improvisations, but Byron Coley's review of the tape in the Wire makes an even more salient comparison: he says the music suggests what "Joe Morris's early trio sessions might have been like if he were playing unplugged." Below you can check out the opening track, "dB." On Saturday night Stine plays with another strong lineup—Vida and bassist Matt Ulery.
Next week all-star hard-bop septet the Cookers hits Constellation, playing two shows on Thursday, October 20. All the group's members are bandleaders in their own right and important figures in the modern history of jazz. These days such groups exist primarily to play the well-paying festival circuit, but the Cookers, assembled by trumpeter David Weiss nine years ago, operate as a proper working band. They recently released their lushly arranged, hard-charging fifth album, The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart (Smoke Sessions), which should appeal to listeners who miss Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and love the searching quality in John Coltrane's solos.

The Cookers' lineup includes Weiss and fellow trumpeter Eddie Henderson, saxophonists Donald Harrison Jr. and Billy Harper, bassist Cecil McBee, pianist George Cables, and drummer Billy Hart—together they're a walking encyclopedia of experience, and their collective resumé includes work with the likes of Blakey, Randy Weston, Charles Lloyd, Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Herbie Hancock, Max Roach, and Lee Morgan. The band doesn't reinvent the wheel—its members all have firmly established identities, and here they revel in them, unburdened by any demand except that of playing at an extraordinarily high level. Countless jazz musicians carry on hard-bop tradition today, but they exist at a remove from the style's heyday; the Cookers are part of the dying breed that actually participated in it. Here's the album's scorching title track, a Harper composition with a strong blues feel and a cool, elegant arrangement.

Today's playlist:

Lewis Nielson, Axis (Mode)
Linda Oh, Sun Pictures (Greenleaf)
Mats Gustafsson, Catalpult (Doubt Music)
Traffic, John Barleycorn Must Die (Island)
Ilpo Väisänen, Asuma (Mego)

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