Black Truffle is pleased to welcome free jazz legend Joe McPhee back to the fold with Oblique Strategies, a wild trio recorded in Antwerp in 2018 in the company of Mette Rasmussen’s fire-breathing alto saxophone and Dennis Tyfus’s post-Fluxus antics on tape, voice, and percussion. Rasmussen and Tyfus have previously recorded together as Bazuinschal, and some similar strategies are on display here: mysterious metallic scrapes, extended tones in which voice and sax become indistinguishable, comic explosions of varispeed tape. With McPhee on board, however, proceedings are more sumptuous, with the two horns moving fluidly from expeditions into the extremes of their instruments’ registers to pointillistic note-splatter and Ayler-esque folk melodies; we even get to bask in some of the slow-motion free blues that McPhee has now been playing for half a century. McPhee is heard primarily on tenor, Rasmussen mainly on alto, but with Rasmussen doubling on sundry objects, and the whole trio contributing vocals, certainty about who is doing what becomes nigh impossible. The recording and production add to this hazy unclarity. Where much contemporary improvised music aims at dryly clinical hi-fi, the lively reverberant space of Oblique Strategies calls to mind the less-than-pristine sonics of classic free jazz artefacts like John Tchicai’s Afrodisiaca or McPhee’s own Underground Railroad.
A further dimension of oblique unpredictability is added by subtle changes in the sense of space: at times merely a reverb tail glimpsed between phrases, at other points the whole mix seems to be momentarily swallowed up in slap-back, blurring the lines between acoustic instruments and the decayed fidelity of Tyfus’ tape playback. Spread across four pieces ranging from four to nineteen minutes in length, Oblique Strategies moves with anarchic swagger from explosions of clattering cymbals and bellowing horns to near-silent episodes of mysterious rumble and clunk. ‘Death or Dinner?’ opens the record with a lovely duet of climbing melodic patterns shared between the two saxophones, played with a buzzing oboe-like tone. A long, wavering note sung by Tyfus cues the first of countless changes of direction, eventually leading to a crescendo of watery splutters and duelling saxes. At points Tyfus’ keening resemble the signature moves of his friend and collaborator, Ghédelia Tazartès; at others, his tape-sped huffs and puffs possess a rawness reminiscent of Henri Chopin or Gil Wolman. The dialogue between wailing saxophones and vocal cries, punctuated by percussive thuds and crashes, can at times feel less like a musical performance and more like the calls of some mysterious forest creatures, possessing a primordial energy that might remind some listeners of the outdoor antics of Brötzmann and Bennink’s Schwarzwaldfahrt.
Oblique Strategies can also be delicate at times, as on the beautiful third piece, ‘Destilled Edible’, dominated by a slow, microtonal melody played with a breathy tone resembling a shakuhachi. The closing side-long ‘Light My Fire’ ranges across classic improv call and response, skittering trumpet blurts, inept cymbal clatter, mock-operatic vocals, and crude tape manoeuvres. Momentarily pausing at the ten-minute mark for an interlude of ghostly room sound and crackling texture, its closing moments unfurl a glorious dual saxophone finale, the almost epic tone subtly undermined by Tyfus quietly tapping out swing rhythms. Arriving in a striking sleeve adorned with Tyfus’ drawings,Oblique Strategies is an invigoratingly free-spirited blast of improvisation.