May 25, 2024

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CD review: Joe McPhee and Evan Parker – Sweet Nothings For Milford Graves – 2023: Video, CD cover

Two masters of wind instruments blowing in from the Windy City. In 2003, as part of the seventh annual Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz & Improvised Music, Joe McPhee and Evan Parker squared off for a round of intimate dialogues. The resulting recording is just the second time they had played as a duet, the previous also being in Chicago, at a studio in 1998, where the limited their instrumentarium to tenor saxophones, resulting in the Okka Disc classic Chicago Tenor Duets (2002).

In this case, they expanded their arsenal to include tenor and soprano saxophones, as well as McPhee’s trusty pocket cornet. Held in a beautiful hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, the concert was unforgettable. Fortunately, it was documented by the legendary mobile recordist Malachi Ritscher, who recorded most of the Bottle Fests with his usual rough-and-ready style. From the opening notes, Sweet Nothings was notable for the musicians’ intuitive connection. Freely improvised in seven parts, these are duets of the highest caliber performed by two musicians who are constantly seeking common ground — what you might call “agree-to-agree” improvisors. But there’s no lack of tension or productive dissonance; on the contrary, that’s part of their unity of vision, the shared ability to diverge and reconnect.

You might call Sweet Nothings For Milford Graves a chronology complicator. It is the third recording by Joe McPhee and Evan Parker, a pair of highly esteemed improvisers from either side of the Atlantic. But it was recorded in 2003, so it actually falls in between Chicago Tenor Duets (recorded in 1998, released by Okka Disk in 2002) and  What / If / They Both Could Fly? (recorded in 2012, released the next year by Rune Grammofon). Discographers, revise your spreadsheets.

When an album comes out 19 years after it was recorded, questions arise. Why did it take so long? Why now? In the case of Sweet Nothings For Milford Graves, some delay is understandable. It was not recorded with the intent of making a record. Rather, it was snatched from the air by Malachi Ritscher, who was an extremely diligent documenter of Chicago’s improvisational musical scene for many years prior to his passing in 2006. It was de rigueur for him to record every set at events like the second Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, which included this concert, which was an off-site event held at the Chicago Cultural Center. While it was Ritscher’s habit to hand musicians a recording of a concert the next time they came to town, it’s quite possible that neither McPhee nor Parker, both inveterate travelers, dug their copies out off their respective shelves until COVID took them off the road. Or maybe it wasn’t unearthed until Ritscher’s recordings were archived by the Experimental Sound Studio after his death.

The second question is answered in part by playing the album. The rapport between the two musicians is manifest from its first seconds, as they initiate twin lines on soprano saxophones. First, one musician’s sound-stream writhes like a serpent around the other’s long-toned staff. Then they swap places, and carry on an exquisitely evolving discourse of complementary co-creation that feels too short at a bit over seven minute. Next, they bring out the tenors, matching ascending flutters to descending barks, wrapping precisely articulated notes around deftly turned slurs, and sliding into a moment of abstracted, blue balladry. You can hear both men’s deep engagement with the history of their instruments applied to the moment’s jointly imagined sound picture. The third sweet nothing (there are seven in total) begins in a realm of purer abstraction, with McPhee’s pocket trumpet issuing striated, breathy smears while Parker’s straight horn shoots pitches towards the stars. Yeah, you could say they were having a good day.

The literally mind might be wondering by now, what does any of this music have to do with Milford Graves? The late, august percussionist and scholar wasn’t directly involved in its making, since he was not at the festival that yielded this recording. The time of his passing corresponds more to the time when the album might have been entering pre-production than the time when the music was originally played. Perhaps it’s best to take the title as simply one more expression of appreciation among many that both Parker and McPhee have made towards their peers, comrades and inspirations.

So, back to that question — why issue another duo recording when two have already been made? Beyond the simple fact that the music is good, it’s likely that the label involved has a personal investment in this one. Half of Corbett Vs. Dempsey co-curated that festival in 2003 and you can bet that this recording stirs up some good memories. Or maybe I’m just projecting; after all, I was there too, and I can assure you that it has that effect on me.

Sweet Nothings for Milford Graves w/Evan Parker - Jazz Messengers

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