Perfect Sound Forever

Joe McPhee/Dominic Duval - Honesty

Joe McPhee, photo courtesy of EMF and Interpretations

by Craig Nixon (Sept 1999)

Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and bassist Dominic Duval have both worked in myriad musical situations and instrumentations. In three decades of recording as a leader McPhee's work ranges from solo recitals to groups of eight or more pieces. Duval's work encompasses a similar range: solo bass, duos, his own C.T. String Trio (with Jason Kao Hwang, Tomas Ulrich and Ron Lawrence), and larger ensembles. He also spent a productive stint as part of pianist Cecil Taylor's trio, alongside drummer Jackson Krall. McPhee's progress has been well documented on recordings beginning in 1969; first on his own CJR label, later on the Swiss hat Hut label. Duval's history is not quite as easily examined. Coming to prominence only several years ago with Taylor's trio he seems, however, to be making up for lost time. Each year brings more and clearer recorded documentation of what he's been up to all along. Most of these occur on the Cadence label (home to his solo bass recording Nightbird Inventions) or its sister CIMP label (see The Watermelon Suite the McPhee/Duval duo expanded to three with the addition of drummer Jay Rosen, to name just one recent disc).

A recent duo performance in upstate New York gave telling evidence that McPhee and Duval, despite different backgrounds and musical histories, were just as well as destined to make something special out of the bare-bones, tell-all art form known as the duo.

The Accord Train Station sits alone in the middle of a small field-like space in this upstate New York hamlet. Upon arrival on a almost-dusk spring evening the solitary figure of Dominic Duval could be seen wandering in the yard in front of the station. Hundreds of feet away, on the opposite side of the station Joe McPhee is currently staking out a similar space - wandering aimlessly around the grounds, alone. I observe this curious scene for several long minutes - both musicians quietly taking in the outdoor space as if each were completely unaware of the other's existence. It makes for a stark contrast to the tightly woven duo music to shortly follow.

McPhee is thankfully no longer a contender for the dreaded "best-kept secret" status - you know, Poughkeepsie's best-kept secret, New York's best-kept secret, the USA's best-kept secret, the "best-kept secret in jazz." Hard as it may be to fathom, it's been thirty years since McPhee's first recording as a leader took place in an echo-laden hall of a Kingston, NY monastery. It was 1969 - freedom music and Nation Time were the order of the day. Aided by friend Craig Johnson (who recorded the session) McPhee had formed CJR Records as an outlet for his original music. Some years later, with the involvement of Pia and Werner Uehlinger, CJR would become hat Hut Records, one of the most important labels consistently documenting new music. Underground Railroad, CJR's initial LP, was a piece certainly of it's time. During the course of the 24-minute title track the rhythym section of Tyrone Crabb on bass and Ernie Bostic on drums (and occasional vibes) roiled, sputtered and crashed, the cavernous sound of the hall lending a particularly dramatic sound to Bostic's drum kit.

The horns of McPhee on trumpet, pocket cornet and tenor; and Reggie Marks on tenor, soprano and flute kept up a squalling, dovetailing free dialogue. McPhee was already completely fluent in the double assault of brass and reeds at this early date; his clarion trumpet sound had no problem blasting out over Bostic's crashing assault and his tenor was as gutsy and fully realized on this debut as was that of most others already established. Emotion on the session ran high - this was energy music, for sure, but above all else the shit was swinging.

Thirty years down the line, everything's changed and nothing's changed. New instruments have been added to the arsenal - valve trombone, didjeridu, alto clarinet. An added sense of space and form have emerged, as befits thirty years of development; but just as Underground Railroad still doesn't sound a bit dated, when McPhee picks up the tenor in 1999 for some emotional free blowing it may as well be 1969.

For this duo performance the cabal of instruments was reduced to soprano and tenor saxophones. I've felt at times that Joe's saxophone playing has been in somewhat short supply in recent years due to his having widened his range of instruments. So here was a chance to hear his saxophone almost unadorned in the company of good friend and ever more present colleague Dominic Duval. McPhee is still most fleet and at his technical best on soprano but his tenor still carries the emotional edge and energetic cry as it did thirty years ago. It's a powerful, booming tenor sound with low notes big enough to fill an entire concert hall and a tone with a strong, metallic edge reminiscent of "energy" players of yore. Not to say his concept sounds dated - in fact, it's thoroughly modern and matured in it's confident use of space and silence, shape and formlessness, time and freedom.

As for Dominc Duval, his playing of late has contained one revelation after another. The first few times I heard him it was as a member of Cecil Taylor's trio. New York gigs with the typical dismal sound mix done by uninterested amateurs; they never know how to handle the sound of the amp itself or the discreet electronics Duval was using on these gigs. The bass invariably came out as over-miked with a brittle, trebly sound that made things overall sound scratchy and very unappealing, as well as being louder than everything else, even Cecil (!). An earlier gig in this series with Chris Kelsey's trio and this duo stripped away the sound problems to reveal some astonishing truths. A beautiful woody tone, spot on intonation and a technique that is becoming nothing short of amazing are now more evident than ever. Duval is more than strong enough to carry his featured roles such as his solo bass recording (Nightbird Inventions, Cadence Records) or his duo recording with drummer Jay Rosen (The Wedding Band, CIMP Records), to name just two. Combined with a rhythmic pocket that seems endlessly deep Duval sounds like the most swinging bassist currently playing new music. His free playing frequently broke into a straight-ahead walking line that swung so damn hard it could groove you right out of your chair.

It's not, however, the ever-evolving extended techniques of both McPhee and Duval that grab you in a duo setting such as this. It is honesty. Pure, simple honesty; both musical and personal. In McPhee's sound and playing one can hear the totality of a thirty-plus year development. The energy of the early years combining with the careful attention to detail and use of space that time brings about.

It's an Ayler-esque spiritual cry one minute and long minutes of nothing but the sound of air moving through the horn the next. It's the sound of having played in countless different settings with countless friends and master musicians, in scores of different countries on different continents combining with the fact that there is just no work close to home. In McPhee's playing now you can hear the entire scope of his long, studied development.

Experiencing Dominic Duval coming to grips with the honesty of this music is a different situation than that of McPhee. For myself the difference lies as much in how we perceive thier past as much as the present. Duval and McPhee are in the same age range. Joe's development has been well documented on umpteen recordings as a leader. You know where he's come from, the pleasure lies in watching where he'll go. Duval sprang upon us already fully formed. He is one of those players who, after hearing for a while you think to yourself: "Wait a sec... where's this guy been? He's already into his forties and sounding great, did I miss something, or did he come out of nowhere?" Duval certainly did not come out of nowhere, but I don't know a lot about his past beyond the last eight years or so. I think I prefer it that way, because what I hear now is this: Long periods of solitary hard work getting the music together, long periods with maybe some other darker stuff we might not want to talk about a whole lot. Currently, the music sounds like someone emerging from the darkness and heading toward the light. It sounds like one having come at last to a clearing in life and the music and letting the hard work and the past do its thing. It sounds like all the stuff from the past quarter-century, whatever it may be, finally coming out - almost all at once. Oh yeah, and it swings like mad.

Oh, the music? Free improvisation dovetailing seamlessly into pieces composed by both. Free play eventually becomes more sedate, actual tunes are clearly evident. If I'm on, even a piece of McPhee's "Give Then Their Flowers While They're Here" can be spotted. One free piece becomes a heartfelt "My Funny Valentine," McPhee simply intoning the melody several times while Duval swings it down. In the second set "Blue Monk" (Tenor and bass stating the melody in several different keys at once) gives Joe a chance to lay back and play some relaxed tenor blues. At another point during a moment of frenetic free bowing Duval stops for a split-second to audibly curse at his malfunctioning bow. It's the sound of good friends reacting together, the sound of honesty.

Also see Steve Koenig's interview with Dominic Duval

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