As long as I’ve known Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark—more than two decades now—he’s always been extremely candid about the importance Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee has had on his own work. When he was just 17, Vandermark heard McPhee’s stunning 1977 solo album, Tenor, and was deeply moved. When McPhee—who performs Sunday in a duo with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten during the closing night of this year’s Umbrella Music Festival—first performed in Chicago in February 1996, Vandermark had the chance to make a recording with his idol, a memory he relates in the liner notes for his recent Impressions of Po Music (Okka Disc), a fantastic nonet effort devoted to interpreting McPhee’s music.
“I was pretty much a nervous wreck,” he writes. “Joe must have known this, and certainly how much I revered his work, but never once treated me as anything less than a peer.” That recording session—which produced the 1997 album A Meeting in Chicago—kicked off a long working relationship between the musicians that carries on to this day. The seeds for Impressions of Po Music were planted in the spring of 2009, when Vandermark led a quartet playing McPhee’s music from the late 70s; after the concert he shared his idea for a project “in the spirit of the great Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations, with Joe as a featured soloist over arrangements I’d make of his pieces for a larger group.” This constellation debuted the following summer in Milwaukee at the annual festival organized by Okka Disk Records, and it reconvened in Chicago in November at the Umbrella Music fest’s 2010 installment. That concert was a powerful experience for those who attended, featuring some of Vandermark’s strongest arranging, which presented a dynamic new spin on McPhee’s repertoire.
In June 2011 Vandermark and McPhee took the band—vibist Jason Adasiewicz, cornetist Josh Berman, trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Tim Daisy, bassist Kent Kessler, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and saxophonist Dave Rempis—into the studio, and earlier this summer the recording was released. In the end McPhee ended up as just one of many great soloists—hardly surprising given his humility and ensemble-oriented ethos—which is just a bonus for listeners. The repertoire draws on his Po Music rubric in the late 70s and early 80s, when he worked with mostly European collaborators like André Jaume (reeds) and Raymond Boni (electric guitar). But here the arrangements dramatically alter the music’s original complexion, giving the compositions a fuller, plusher, and less elliptical sound. Vandermark calls these arrangements “impressions” of the tunes, and in that spirit he takes artistic liberties that convey important kernels of the compositions to create something new, something that sounds like him. It’s a terrific album. Below you can check out “Impressions of Sweet Dragon.”
David Stackenäs, Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues and Nuno Torres, Wounds of Light (Creative Sources)
Various artists, California Funk: Rare Funk 45s From the Golden State (Jazzman/Now-Again)
James Clay & David “Fathead” Newman, The Sound of Wide Open Spaces (Riverside/OJC)
Esa-Peka Salonen, Out of Nowhere (Deutsche Grammophon)
Aaron Novik, Secrets of Summer (Tzadik)