Joe McPhee: Nation Time


By Imre Szeman

"What Time is It!" bellows Joe McPhee. "Nation Time!" yells back the audience at Vassar College's Center for Black Studies. Louder, more imploringly, a second cry, "WHAT TIME IS IT!" "NATION TIME!" "Aw, come on, you can do better than that! What TIME is IT!" Before the last cry of "Nation Time!" is finished, Joe McPhee kicks off his 18-plus minute assault on, well, on everything. Jazz would never be the same.

Or that’s how things would have turned out in a perfect world. McPhee’s perfect gem of an album, Nation Time disappeared off shelves and remained alive only in the memories of aficionados. The re-issue of McPhee’s 1971’s album, the first of John Corbett’s superb, astonishing “Unheard Music” series on Atavistic, lets a new generation listen first-hand to McPhee’s revolutionary and influential brand of free jazz. The re-release of Nation Time comes just as McPhee is being “rediscovered” in U.S. jazz circles. It’s not that he went anywhere. McPhee has been productive throughout the last three decades. What has kept McPhee on the margins of the American jazz scene always revered, but never the first, or second, or third name on anyone’s lips when asked to pick out the major players of the age has been his sustained commitment to improvisation and the fact that, until recently, he has recorded primarily in Europe and Canada. This isn’t because he could cut it in the U.S. Far from it: the Swiss jazz label hatArt and the label CJR were both started solely so that they could record McPhee’s music, which should give some idea of the strength and force of McPhee’s playing.

Mix the passion and fire of Rashaan Roland Kirk, Ornette Coleman’s improvisational sensibility and, oh, say, George Clinton’s feel for the funk (or if you want to stick to jazz, Sun Ra), and you’d come up with the ingredients for Nation Time and much of the rest of McPhee’s catalog. Unlike Coleman’s Free Jazz, McPhee’s improvs loop back into a pure, unforced lyricism that anchors all of his brilliant frenzy and makes his improvisations accessible even to those who like more fully composed, straight-ahead work. Unlike its immediate predecessor, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which shares its fusion of funk and free jazz, Nation Time is joyous, melodic and impassioned, rather than noisy, aggressive and, finally, more or less disarticulated. McPhee dedicated Nation Time to the poet Amiri Baraka. It’s fitting: McPhee captures perfectly the post-Beat sensibility and powerful revolutionary energy of Baraka’s in music. The three tracks that make-up the album can be taken as three “tone poems,” that deal with different poetic subject matter in three different forms of “jazz,” experimentally mixing-up some of jazz’s pasts and projecting them into the future.

I don’t need to rain down accolades on McPhee. Since he resumed touring the U.S. in the past two or three years, his clipping service must be hard pressed to snag all the glowing reviews that pile laudatory adjective on top of one another in the way that McPhee assembles notes. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD describes McPhee as “one of the most consistently impressive and adventurous composer/instrumentalists in the music.” The magazine Cadence has called him “probably the best saxophone/cornet instrumentalist in the history of jazz.” Sometime in the near future, I expect that the careful documentation of McPhee’s jazz improvisations on hatArt will come to assume the same importance to cultural and music history as Alan Lomax’s documentation of American folk and blues. Really. Nation Time is as a good a place as any to start a sustained relationship with this genius of modern jazz. It’s the kind of album that you want to tell everyone about and that you want to force everyone to listen to. Brilliant stuff-an absolutely, positively recommended addition to your collection.

What time is it? When the choices for U.S. president come down to the malapropism prone Dubya and ol’ farmhand Al Gore (described in the New Yorker as “an old man’s idea of a young man”), now more than ever, it’s nation time.

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