Joe McPhee is not afraid to play a recognizable tune. He even gets emotional about it.
For an avant-garde improvising musician, this makes McPhee a very distinctive and approachable performer indeed.
His solo improvisations on alto saxophone dedicated to the questing spirit of Canadian alto saxophonist Maury Coles began at The Beginning.
McPhee's life breath activated the horn into an expressive series of key pad flutters, rushing wind, and flat slap tonguing that eventually revealed McPhee to be in a duet with himself, boldly singing into his horn and blowing forth upper partials in streams of beauty and direct emotionality. In the next piece, a skipping kids' song by Ornette Coleman was developed into playful fluffs of air, mixed with high register singing.
Then McPhee stood in a meditative state for nearly two minutes, with eyes closed and hands clasped over his alto. When he did begin to play, he started an eerie form of whistling that emanated from behind his teeth. Seamlessly alternating with overblown squealing horn lines, he'd whistle his troubling midnight tune again offering fragments of both his inner and outer songs.
In a charming change of mood, a lilting triplet melody gradually expanded into explosive cycles of ripe alto tones. In between McPhee's cycling lines and recurring episodes of 'alien' alto singing, his quick insertions of bursts! and blats! stretched the tune at times into a scary mask.
The perdurable Gospel song, "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child", calmed things down, and brought it all back home. McPhee's burnished and dialogic alto spread a feeling of peace throughout the room, and things ended as they began, in a flow of audible air blown into the sax.
When McPhee later improvised with Toronto musicians associated with AIMToronto (Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto) the flautist Rob Piilonen, bassist Victor Bateman, and guitarist Michael Keith he limited himself to playing a pocket trumpet which, with its exclamations and expressionistic jags, had all the exciting flare and energy of Don Cherry. Flautist Rob Piilonen contributed constantly to the music's momentum and creative character, while bassist Victor Bateman unobtrusively provided group context and sympathetic support to the horns. And guitarist Michael Keith was always there, with his surround sound metaphors of civilizations, their electronic crackle, abrading emotions, their cities, and their dust...
Deep Dark United had a set to themselves, these three musical children descended, it seems, from Mendelsohn Joe and Tom Waits.
'Quirky', and singing and playing songs with lyrics "I check my watch and take a seat" or portentously intoning that the "Future is a thing of the past" ("200 Saxophones"), vocalist and guitarist Alex Lukashevsky assumed the role of leader, frequently looking to keyboardist Tania Gill who embellished and pumped the rhythm, as Nick Fraser provided percussion accents and beats on mostly snare drum and cymbal.
As a species of 'out there' music with obvious roots in folk and pop songs we appreciated the fact that their music rocked and swung and lurched to oom-pah-pah pumping rhythms, got 'punk'-ish about folk music, and strode vivaciously like a Tango dancer, right into a thicket of words informing us that: "It's raining, but you have no place to go."
It was fun. It was amusing, and comfortably odd.
A fine mixture of music and intention it was, this inaugural evening of X AVANT New Music Festival.
Give us more. We want to hear from you next year.