by Ian Mann
June 27, 2021
An intense and intriguing improvised performance from three established masters of the art. Uncompromising, but compelling and absorbing listening, consistently unfolding and restlessly creative.
“The King’s Hall Concert”
(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM5)
Joe McPhee – tenor saxophone, trumpet, John Pope – double bass, Paul Hession – drums
The fifth release on the recently established New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings imprint features the trio Telemaque, a collaboration between the American saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee and the British rhythm team of bassist John Pope and drummer Paul Hession.
Originally billed as the Joe McPhee Trio the three musicians were brought together in 2018 for two performances at that year’s Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music Festival. This album captures the first of those appearances with the trio performing in front of five hundred eager listeners at the King’s Hall venue at Newcastle University.
The New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings label is a direct spin off of the Festival with Festival curator Wesley Stephenson deciding to found a record label in response to the cancellation of the 2020 event due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
Stephenson’s main objective with regard to the establishment of a label at this time was to offer a creative and economic outlet to musicians who had been denied live performance opportunities due to the pandemic. A successful Crowdfunder campaign was integral to the founding of the imprint and the first album appeared in December 2020. Reviews of the majority of the label’s releases to date can be found elsewhere on The Jazzmann.
An ethos of sustainability informs the project with the label deploying a carbon neutral manufacturing plant and distribution network and using recycled and biodegradable materials wherever possible.
Turning now to this specific release which features the two part ‘spontaneous composition’ “St. Elmo’s Fire”, which the trio describe as being inspired by “navigating storms and the fight for cultural freedom and liberation”.
The album packaging includes a quote from the American author and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938); “Let our rejoicing rise / High as the listening skies / Let it resound loud as the rolling sea”. The lines are drawn from the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, for which Johnson wrote the lyrics, the song later being adapted by the NAACP as the “Negro National Anthem”.
Joe McPhee (born 1939) is a pioneer of the US free jazz and improvised music scene who has been recording since the late 1960s and who has established a voluminous and hugely impressive back catalogue of recordings. He has been a regular visitor to Britain, collaborating with musicians such as saxophonist Evan Parker and with pianist/organist Alexander Hawkins, bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble, collectively known as the organ trio Decoy. He has also performed with leading European improvisers such as saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Haaker-Flaten.
McPhee is a genuine multi-instrumentalist who, at various times, has recorded on tenor & soprano saxes, trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, valve trombone, piano and electronics. Now based in Poughkeepsie in New York state he is also a conceptualist and theorist, whose music also exhibits a strong sense of philosophical and political engagement.
His regular bands include Trio X, with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen and the electro-acoustic Survival Unit III featuring Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics and Michael Zerang on percussion.
More occasional projects include collaborations with the Scandinavian ensembles The Thing and Trespass Trio and with Universal Indians, a Dutch / Norwegian aggregation led by Amsterdam based saxophonist John Dikeman. Back in the US McPhee’s own Po Music Harmelodic Trio explores the musical legacy of Ornette Coleman alongside guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Johua Abrams.
“The King’s Hall Concert” finds McPhee renewing his alliance with the great British free jazz drummer Paul Hession, with whom he recorded the album “Parallax View” for Slam Records back in 2003. Leeds born Hession is one of the UK’s leading free jazz drummer/percussionists and has performed with many of the country’s leading improvisers, among them saxophonists Alan Wilkinson, Lol Coxhill, Nat Birchall and Tony Bevan, bassists Simon H Fell, Dave Kane, Tim Fairhall and Michael Bardon, keyboard player Adam Fairhall, guitarist Derek Bailey, vibraphonist Corey Mwamba, trombonist Paul Rutherford and multi-instrumentalist Mick Beck.
Perhaps Hession’s most famous ensemble was the trio HWF, with Wilkinson and the late Fell, a formidable improvising unit that was recorded frequently on albums such as the excellent live session “Two Falls & A Submission”, recorded at one of my regular pre-covid haunts, the Queens Head in Monmouth back in 2010.
Hession has been a regular visitor to the ‘Queens’ also appearing there with Nat Birchall and with The Markov Chain featuring the Fairhall brothers Adam (keyboards) and Tim (bass). He has also featured with a trio fronted by the German saxophonist Hans Peter Hiby, with Michael Bardon on bass.
John Pope is the youngest of the three Telemaque musicians. The Newcastle based bassist is becoming an increasingly influential presence on the jazz and improvised music scene in the North East of England.
He is a member of the electro-jazz trio Archipelago, alongside saxophonist / vocalist Faye MacCalman and drummer / percussionist Christian Alderson. The group’s latest recording, “Echoes To The Sky” is also scheduled for release on the NEWJAiM imprint.
Pope has also released his own album for the label, the excellent quintet recording “Mixed With Glass”, which was issued in February and features a twin saxophone front line of MacCalman (tenor) and Jamie Stockbridge (alto), with Graham Hardy on trumpet and Johnny Hunter at the drums. Review here;
Others with whom Pope has collaborated include Chris Biscoe (reeds), Roger Turner (drums / percussion), John Garner (violin) and lap top artist Shelly Knotts.
His increasing commitment to the art of improvisation has also seen him performing in this context with an impressive range of British and international musicians, among them saxophonists Evan Parker, Tony Bevan and Cath Roberts, multi-instrumentalists Joe McPhee and Mick Beck, harpist Rhodri Davies, pianist Alexander Hawkins, guitarist Anton Hunter and drummers Paul Hession and Han Bennink.
“The Kings Hall Concert” finds McPhee featuring on both saxophone and trumpet on two lengthy improvisations that would each take up a side of a vinyl LP.
The shorter of the two, “”St. Elmo’s Fire Part 1” commences with the extraordinary combination of McPhee’s voice with a range of extended saxophone techniques – pecks, overblowing etc.
Pope’s bowed bass also manages to sound remarkably horn like while Hession remains a shadowy and textural, rather than rhythmic, presence. There are some truly astonishing other worldly sounds in this opening section, sounds that hold the listener’s attention by daring them to guess their provenance.
Gradually Hession’s cymbal scrapes are superseded by the clatter of sticks on rims, the rumble of toms and other more categorisable drum sounds. McPhee switches to trumpet and the musical conversation really gets under way, but in an emphatically open free jazz manner, with McPhee quickly moving back to tenor while Pope continues to flourish the bow. Hession, a master of the constantly evolving drum commentary, provides both colour and punctuation and actually assumes the lead for a while, delivering a fascinating series of percussive sounds, and making it all sound totally natural and organic. He’s joined in dialogue by Pope, now playing pizzicato, with a gently ruminative McPhee subsequently joining in on tenor. Gradually the trio begin to ramp up the intensity as McPhee’s playing becomes more forceful, with Pope and Hession again responding accordingly. As McPhee reaches up into the tenor’s upper registers the music ebbs and flows, before eventually winding down to conclude with a final exhalation of breath.
“Part II” commences with a combination of double bass and percussive sounds, the latter very possibly emanating from Pope’s hands on the body of his instrument. Pope then reverts to a more orthodox pizzicato technique, his solo ruminations later joined in dialogue by the responsive clatter of Hession’s drums. There are vocalisations too, presumably emanating from the bassist. After holding fire and just listening for a while McPhee eventually enters the proceedings on tenor, causing the music to gather both momentum and intensity. The saxophonist’s fiery, garrulous improvisations, often reaching and stretching into the instrument’s upper registers, are matched by Pope’s muscular bass plucking and the whirlwind of Hession’s drumming. The rhythm team are then left to their own devices for a while, with Pope’s powerful pizzicato leading the way, at one point almost establishing an orthodox ‘groove’. Things wind down a little as McPhee returns to the fray, his tenor playing now exhibiting a strong ‘spiritual’ quality, reminiscent of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, before veering off into the realms of extended technique, with the saxophonist again ‘singing’ in haunting fashion through his horn. The devotional feel then returns for a final section featuring McPhee’s sax incantations, Pope’s arco bass drone and the rumble and shimmer of Hession’s drums and cymbals.
“The King’s Hall Concert” represents an intense and intriguing improvised performance from three established masters of the art. As old friends and collaborators McPhee and Hession are on the same wavelength throughout, but one shouldn’t underestimate the performance of Pope, NEWJAiM’s most recorded artist, who slots in perfectly alongside his more experienced colleagues and is very much an equal partner in the creative process.
This is music that is pretty uncompromising and it won’t be to everybody’s taste, but I, for one, found it to be compelling and absorbing listening, consistently unfolding and restlessly creative.
The uncompromising stance of the Telemaque trio reflects that of the NEWJAiM imprint itself, which has to date released six very different albums from a diverse set of artists, both from the UK and abroad. All are united by their admirable willingness to experiment and to push musical and cultural boundaries. Well done to Wes Stephenson for bringing this thought provoking music to us.
All NEWJAiM releases are available at;