Blue Reality Quartet!
In another time the album cover would come across as daunting with four men, each with his face covered with a mask. Yet, in these times, we quickly realize that these four musicians have recorded an album during the height of the pandemic. That’s a blue reality itself but the title has some additional history too which we’ll get to shortly. To understand the album’s thrust is to embrace the Mahakala label’s mission statement which is to bring together some unjustly lesser-known musicians and pair them with bigger names in free jazz. The Blue Reality Quarter features legendary saxophonist Joe McPhee in an unusual lineup of two reeds and two percussionists. The group takes its name from a trio record that reedist Michael Marcus did for Black Saint/Soul Note about 20 years ago, shortly after 9/11. Joining the two are drummer/vibraphonist Warren Smith and drummer/percussion Jay Rosen. The sound is akin to William Parker’s Painters Spring or to Painters Winter which we covered on these pages earlier this month.
McPhee, Marcus, and Rosen performed a show in Austria with another drummer and thought they should bring the chemistry of that performance without a bass or chordal instrument to record. When that drummer was unavailable, they tapped Smith. The album has more textures than one might expect as Marcus plays tenor, bass clarinet, and flute while McPhee counter with tenor, alto, and soprano. These various tunes weaved in with Smith’s vibes can conjure not only the sounds of William Parker but even Eric Dolphy, especially in the bass clarinet paired with vibes.
You begin hearing these gorgeous and meditative tones in the opening “Love Exists Everywhere.” “Chartreuse Tulips” begins with the sound of vibes and percussion with an interesting pairing of soprano and bass clarinet. “Bluer Than Blue” pits McPhee’s tenor against Marcus’s bass clarinet as they weave around each other with Smith’s punctuating vibes and Rosen’s free beats. Similar instrumentation carries through on the punchier “Coney Island Funk” where Smith’s vibes add considerably to overall effect of the two reedists intently blowing. “Joe’s Train” features both McPhee and Marcus on tenor. That configuration holds for the rollicking almost nine minutes “East Side Dilemma” where each horn and each drummer let loose with an impassioned solo, the two tenors in a free jazz cutting version of “Tenor Madness.”
As “Warren’s Theme,” suggests, it is a showcase for Smith on vibes for a rather spacey, languid tune imbued by Marcus on bass flute, McPhee on tenor and Rosen carefully placing mostly percussion splashes rather than drumming. So, while on the surface “two saxophonists and two drummers” may not pique everyone’s interest The Blue Reality Quartet does far more, producing many textures and colors by changing the instrumentation to deliver some stunning combinations. Even for those who typically stay away from free jazz, this one is often more accessible than not. Try it.
- Jim Hynes
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