At age 78, Joe McPhee shows no sign of slowing down. Plan B is the master improviser’s new trio, with James Keepnews on guitar & laptop and David Berger on drums. A soundtrack to a science fiction movie existing only in their heads, From Outer Space finds McPhee and company envisioning the first encounter between alien life and a delegation of earthlings (while giving a nod to jazz’s original man from another planet, Sun Ra, with a side-long suite dedicated to him). It’s quite unlike anything else in McPhee’s vast discography. Cover art by Judith Lindbloom. Download coupon included.
Lasers differ from other light sources by focusing light in a coherent way, and therein resides their power. Joe McPhee, who is one-third of the trio Plan B, was born in 1939. He’s old enough to have had the opportunity to see Buck Rogers in the newspaper, laser guns on projected in black and white on neighborhood cinema screens, and Plan Nine From Outer Space upon its initial release. I can’t tell you if he actually did any of these things, but this much is known: McPhee is a science fiction fan of long-standing; he’s still making new work and taking real chances at the age of 78; and his playing is laser-like in its concentration of information drawn from his own life, the histories of jazz and improvised music, the complicated story of the USA and its relationship with its African-descended residents; and whatever is happening at the second he puts one of his several horns (pocket trumpet and alto and tenor saxophones on this record) to his lips. There’s always a lot of information in every note, reaction, and reference, and so it is with this LP.
McPhee likes to honor inspirations, ideally while they’re still alive, but he doesn’t quite after they have passed. This LP pays tribute to three figures. One is Judith Lindbloom, who was once acknowledged by Sonny Rollins, who once said he practiced in a room with nothing but one of her paintings on the wall, and whose brushwork adorns several of McPhee’s albums for Roaratorio. The untitled image on this LP’s cover was done on December 15, 2015, just seven months before her death. The other is Sun Ra. “The Shadow of the Sun Suite,” which covers side two, is dedicated to him. There’s precedent for this LP’s combination of free jazz and electronics in Ra’s work, but more importantly, McPhee gets the deadly serious message behind Ra’s claims that he is from outer space; if humanity, and especially African-Americans, stick to what they know, they know what they’re going to get, and for most that isn’t very good. In his own time, many people though that Sun Ra was an incompetent clown, kind of like filmmaker Ed Wood, the auteur responsible for Plan Nine From Outer Space. But just like Wood made himself something that others said that he could not be through sheer determination, Ra preached that humans could remake themselves if they let go of their earthly blinders. Space is Plan B for a species that’s made a serious hash of Plan A. And whatever you think of Wood’s movies, you have to give him credit for surviving in a hostile creative environment.
Plan B made From Outer Space in Beacon NY, near McPhee’s hometown of Poughkeepsie, so this is a Hudson Valley affair. The other players aren’t people from the European and Chicagoan scenes that he frequents, nor are they especially well known in wider free music circles, but at least one of them, guitar and laptop player James Keepnews, lives in Beacon. Drummer David Berger’s zip code and affiliations are unknown to me, but the guy delivers what this session needs even though he sounds rather more traditionally rooted than a lot of the drummers McPhee plays with. One intriguing tension on made From Outer Space is the ongoing resolution of the differences between the musicians’ approaches. I’d guess that Berger plays in more straight-ahead contexts, because his playing emphasizes forward motion and swing. But he also a knack for understated coloration, which meshes well Keepnews’ pedal-processed smears, and his brushes-on-snare excursions resonate with the more jazz-rooted guitar gestures. Keepnews’ guitar playing shifts between acid noise, psychedelic slide work, and big brush-stroke atmospherics; there are a few moments where it feels like someone let David Torn into the studio. His laptop playing encompasses piano samples, vibrant outer space tones and startlingly boingy stuff reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle in novelty instrumental mode.
Some of this sounds pretty unlike the material McPhee usually faces, but he didn’t get where he’s at by shutting down when presented with unfamiliar information. He has an opposite response to every notion that his fellow musicians propose. Melancholy balladry complements stuttering guitar athletics, hackle-raising multiphonics mix well with plush electronic sound, and wind splayed prismatically through brass mixes puts some backbone into a swirl of synthetic chimes. This album plays out as a serious of respectful challenges and spontaneous negotiations in which differences are understood, not rejected. – Bill Meyer, Still Single