JOE McPHEE & SURVIVAL UNIT II WITH CLIFFORD THORNTON
N.Y. N.Y. 1971

ANTHONY BRAXTON
Quintet (Basel) 1977

CECIL TAYLOR UNIT
It Is In The Brewing Luminous

ELLERY ESKELIN
Vanishing Point

[hathut, www.hathut.com]

Some of the hathut titles mentioned in this review have fallen by the way-side.  Whether buried under an intense pile of other releases or simply left collecting dust in my library, they nonetheless deserve a few words of mention.
Celebrating its 30th year, hathut has released everything from some of Stockhausen's best pieces, Cages most adventurous stuff, to some of jazz and improvised music's grandest statements.  With a new mandate to release bits and pieces of electro-acoustic music, it is now an all-encompassing label, quite simply concerned with the release of music that matters.  Joe McPhee was the sole reason the label began three decades ago [the first four LPs in fact were all by McPhee].  His trademark hat still garners the labels graphic design.  On his visit to the US back in 1974, hathut's main man, Werner X. Uehlinger visited Joe McPhee and their relationship continues to this very day.  One of the tapes retrieved for release during his visit was a live recording from October 30, 1971, simply titled "N.Y. N.Y. 1971".  To say this music is fervent and full of raging fire is a complete understatement.  Recorded during a live broadcast at WBAI's Free Music Store, the sounds are energized by the dying days of the Vietnam War.  Three horns - Clifford Thornton on baritone, Byron Morris on soprano and alto, along with McPhee on tenor and trumpet - raise an almighty ruckus.  "Nation Time" features a heavily laden sound form of all three musicians rallying against piano chunks Mike Kull throws their way.  Percussive wizardry of Harold E. Smith is kept right up front and works best when the horns mellow out for a few minutes.   His drum solo on "Message from Denmark" is stupendously wild.  McPhee's wildest moments come when he switches gears and rides a mean, rough trumpet.  Though the music may sound very free, there is a lyrical quality to it that can't be denied.  Soaring wildly into the nether regions of WBAI's studios and bouncing their message to the listeners in New York, this session was all about anger, frustration and calls for musical freedom.
A well known fact remains - Anthony Braxton's working bands between mid to late 70's are sorely documented.  Having said that, "Quintet (Basel) 1977" presents a rich and electrifying experience that completes part of the puzzle of this timeframe.  An exciting time, which saw Braxton dive head first into his subsequent compositions, this live recording from June 1977 sees his quintet at peak powers of their game.  Without a doubt, this is a true team effort.  Had one of these musicians pulled back and refrained from giving their all, rest of the house would fall flat on its face.  Trombonist George Lewis offers up some muscular tones, while pianist Muhal Richard Abrams strikes some thick patterns on the keys.  Add to this rhythm section made up of bassist Mark Helias and percussionist Charles "Bobo" Shaw and the deck is stacked in favour of an enjoyable ride through the history books. "Composition 69 N/G" is especially exciting in that Braxton brings all sorts of modal and thematic shifts that keep proceedings interesting.  When things cool off [as they occasionally must], the players seem even more unconstrained then during their more rambunctious moments.  Rich, vibrant music from the past for generations of tomorrow, "Quintet (Basel) 1977" is like a rich chunk of new music's history one must treasure.
Piano master Cecil Taylor had a week long gig at Fat Tuesday's in NYC at the beginning of February 1980.  His Unit produced some of the most vital music of its time during their stint there.  Luckily for us, highlights were recorded and released as "It Is In The Brewing Luminous".  Its reissue [with a new remastered mix by audio guru Peter Pfister] sounds even more revelatory than the original vinyl pressing.  Every single nook and cranny of the audio Taylor and his Unit shot at the audience can now be heard in its cleaned-up glory.  Every single note the Master plays is right there in front of us.  Jimmy Lyons' alto attacks have rarely sounded this persistent and this stubbornly vital.  When he assaults, the rest of the Unit responds in turn with fire of its own.  Ramsey Ameen's softly flowing violin flawlessly melts with Alan Silva's bottomed-out bass playing, but more so with his graceful cello bits.  Finally, the two percussive heads - Jerome Cooper and Sunny Murray - battle out in a war that is won by neither. Ultimately though, it's the leader - Cecil himself - that gets top marks. He's the one that leads this monster into the war and he's the one that works up a percussive sweat on his 88 keys.  There are very little poetic moments [though Cecil does get right down expressive at the end of the first and beginning of the second part of the piece].  This is fury unleashed - fury in its most unadulterated fashion.  There are no ifs and buts about anything played during this performance.  Don't mistake this for chaos though, for there is too much sense to be made out of every little nuance that is heard.  Every member communicates with the others as if they've played together since the beginning of time.  Even when Taylor recites bits and pieces of his own poetry at the end of the CD, it's all good.  Taylor's command of the Unit is so damn effective and so pure in its sense and fashion.  To state the obvious is to say this record remains one of the defining moments in group improvisation.  This is how things should be done and how perfect communication in music should occur.
One of the better concerts I remember seeing was one by Gerry Hemingway Quintet.  At the time, the featured tenor player was Ellery Eskelin.  Midway through the concert, he kept getting upset as people were taking pictures. The constant blinding flashes meant he kept loosing his focus.  That's what I love about the man - he's dead serious about the music he makes and rightly so.  Spread over almost a dozen recordings, over the last decade, hathut has championed the cause in thoroughly documenting his work.  His 2001 effort "Vanishing Point" was one of the better examples of his writing style at the height of its prowess.  As the leader points out in the liner notes:  "The music you are listening to was completely improvised.  It was recorded in one six hour session.  There was no rehearsal.  There were little if any preliminary discussion other than 'show up and let's play'". Eskelin's instrumentation is certainly less than usual.  Viola player Mat Maneri joins cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Mark Dresser and vibraphonist Matt Moran.  Without percussion, all of this makes for music that touches on "third stream".  With all the string instruments and Moran's gentle vibraphone scuttles, there is a certain type of delicacy that is prevalent throughout.  Eskelin's tenor swirls allow a breath of fresh air into the proceedings at just the right moments.  Nothing stifling or pretentious about anything this quintet plays.  "Vanishing Point" is a stepping stone on Eskelin's on-going journey of self-discovery.

- Tom Sekowski


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>> JOE McPHEE & SURVIVAL UNIT II WITH CLIFFORD THORNTON - N.Y. N.Y. 1971 / ANTHONY BRAXTON - Quintet (Basel) 1977 / CECIL TAYLOR UNIT - It Is In The Brewing Luminous / ELLERY ESKELIN - Vanishing Point
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