Trio X, Sugar Hill Suite
Robert D. Rusch - October 19, 2004
It seems appropriate, if specifically unplanned, that CIMP should complete its 9th year with a Trio-X date. Over the years, CIMP has endeavored to give voice to the talented but unheralded, the heralded but underexposed, and be a label that is connective and more than just the sum of its parts. Trio-X is made up of 3 individuals who were all part of our first year and who have developed and explored with us in a number of ways since 1995. Already heralded individually (well before Trio-X was established), CIMP has served as a catalyst in the creation, development, and exposure of Trio-X. Oral evidence makes it obvious that, in Joe McPhee (1939, Miami, FL), Dominic Duval (1944, NYC, NY), and Jay Rosen (1961, Phila., PA), Trio-X is unarguably greater than the considerable sum of its parts.
The focus for this date was to continue the concept of journey, a notion referenced in their previous outings. The trio as vessel into which, as Joe said,"We place as yet unknown things." In this case, the vessel would encompass Harlem as a point of inspiration.
The group drove over from Detroit (part of a brief Great Lakes area tour). We began recording after a night's sleep, a relaxed breakfast, and sound checks. The trio was in very good spirits, displaying a confidence born out of compatibility (musical and personal) and trust. In Art, trust plays a large factor in defining the experience and final presentation. Here the trust between artists and environment was near total.
Just how well this group hits can be heard on For Agusta Savage, the very first performance of the sessions. The trio relies on the trust and quickly develops an emotional understanding that supports and gives flight to its creative explorations. This trio starts at high levels, completely exposed to the risk of crashing if the flight is unsustainable, but atthe same time wide open to the possibility of climbing to above average heights. Their ability to reach and maintain a creative sweet spot, as evidenced in For Agusta Savage, continued to reveal itself, through the succession of first takes on Triple Play, Motherless Child, and Drop Me Off in Harlem.
Lifetimes have primed these 3 artists (the long and short of their history can be studied in the documents of the body of their work) with the sum of their selves coming down to a point at each performance. This is why art is more often than not such an intense, often exhausting, experience as you judge and are judged on the effect of your last brush stroke, word, sculpt, or, in this case, notes. Great artists in this music sustain artistic success in a body of work over time and must continue to produce with consistency, often at a moment's notice. It is what Joe, Dominic, and Jay havedone as individuals and what Trio-X has done collectively since 1998. How brilliant is this group? Take, for example, The Sugar Hill Suite, which, in order, followed Drop Me Off which followed Motherless Child which followed Triple Play which followed For Agusta Savage. Joe prefaced it by saying, "Now we're going to play "The Sugar Hill Suite", and directed it over to Jay, telling Jay to construct it and delineate its parts. Dig how this epic extemporaneous event evolves from Jay's solo into the duo with Dominic, and how Joe, after almost 8 minutes of sustained interest from just drum and drum&bass duets, picks up the duo's music cloth and furthers the form and substance before bringing it back to the rhythm's close. It is a magnificent display of form, lyricism, emotion, and creativity all in instant composition and is the centerpiece of this recording. This is not great because it is surrounded by less but because it surmounts the greatness that surrounds it.
It was a brilliant journey after which the group took a five hour break. Reconvening in The Spirit Room at 8:30 p.m., they opened with Little Sunflower followed by Joe's Monk's Waltz, a piece written in 1965 but unrecorded up until now and which reminds me of the kind of quirky pieces Frank Lowe favored. We then finished with Goin' Home, a reprise of a Trio-X favorite but always done with a fresh interpretation, this time involving more optimism than solemnity - a start not a finish - and certainly offering up a new outlook on an old song.
This was a memorable session. You can't plan these things, but only, over a period of time, prepare and be prepared.
Trio X - The Sugar Hill Suite (CIMP)
by Derek Taylor, 14 March 2005
Harlem's recent checkered history has a habit of eclipsing its importance as a geographical incubator of early jazz. New Orleans holds the marker for the music's figurative birthplace while, thanks to a certain Bill Basie, Kansas City often carries a lock on swing's origins. Yet Harlem had an evolutionary hand comparable to these other legend-steeped locales. Ducal nights at the Cotton Club, Chick Webb's superlative stands at the Savoy Ballroom, and Bix Beiderbecke's incantatory gigs at Small's Paradise - these were a few of the couplers to a vibrant scene that stretched the northern span of Manhattan Island. Saxophonist Joe McPhee, bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen tap this vernal history on The Sugar Hill Suite, celebrating its mythos while simultaneously expanding upon it and bringing it to life. Continuing the custom of past releases, Kara Rusch's colorful cover art plants another bold "X marks the spot", this time atop a watercolor map of the eponymous uptown neighborhood. The trio has once again landed and their shared song carves a wide swathe, antique to the future.
The disc's eight pieces trace a wontedly eclectic path encompassing three jointly 'composed' tracks, two evergreen spirituals, a pair of divergent standards, and a McPhee original sketched in homage to Monk. The saxophonist employs only tenor and it's a thrill to hear him hew his voice to the single horn. The opener "For Agusta Savage" pays respects to the influential African American sculptor with a somber melancholy line etched with grayscale tenor and resonant arco bass. "Triple Play", a funk-flavored rhythm piece that carries a tripartite dedication, allows for some tight simpatico between plump pizzicato bass and brushed drums. McPhee rides the syncopations with a vernacular of swarthy, clipped phrases. Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" offer egress into the trio's ecumenical listening habits. Both compositions receive radical recastings that retain their underlying structural integrity.
The nearly 17-minute title track is a gorgeous exercise in collective improvisation. McPhee sits out for much of the first half, leaving Rosen and Duval to converse on a layered showcase of reflexive interplay. Captured in near pristine clarity by engineer Marc Rusch's mics, the pair's copious time logged as musical partners pays further mesmerizing dividends. The entrance of swirling tenor near the eight-minute divide, further frees the piece from terrestrial tethers and into the harmonic ether. A spate of ecstatic overblowing buttressed by thrumming bass and frothing drums supplies a bracing closure. The trio's rundowns of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" and their signature sign-off "Goin' Home" visit the saxophonist at his most warmly reverential and melodically emotive. The former features a prefatory solo from Duval that, along with his similar turn on the aforementioned "Sunflower", deals in tonal lucidity.
McPhee and his colleagues accomplish a level of heuristic repertory that Marsalis' perpetual posturing only succeeds in paying pompous lip service to. In Trio X's utopian, though hardly naïve, cosmology, Ayler can sit at the table right alongside Ellington and Armstrong. Interpolating black cultural elements both secular and sacred, all coexist in an instrumental harmony that could easily serve as a unifying exemplar for the continually embattled jazz idiom. Once again the bar gradually raises for one of the most appealing ensembles in improvised music, as this fresh outing contains some of its best work to date.