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Lighting Down in Amherst: Joe McPhee and Chris Corsano at the Old Chapel

As 100 people entered the Great Hall in the Old Chapel to hear Joe McPhee and Chris Corsano make music, ushers Lew and Peg Louraine remarked that I seemed to know each one of them. It’s true, much of the audience at the concerts I produce belong to a loose League of Adventurous Listeners, of which I’m a long-standing member.


McPhee, the eternally youthful 78-year old saxophonist and pocket trumpeter, and Corsano, the baby-faced, 42-year old drummer, brought out core League members, along with some special friends of Corsano’s, who has roots in the Pioneer Valley. We were treated to an engrossing concert of spontaneously composed music that made the rounds of sound and emotion.


The March 8th, Magic Triangle Jazz Series performance was simple, unadorned and exquisitely complex. No written music, no amplification, no pre-concert discussion of how the evening should unfold. Just two master improvisers with a good amount of shared history, at different stages of their life journeys, letting us eavesdrop on their heavy musical conversation.


McPhee has developed a distinctive range of sound producing techniques on saxophone since appearing on Clifford Thornton’s Freedom and Unity in 1967. About 20 minutes in, Corsano dropped out and McPhee sang through his alto sax, while playing multi-phonically. “Blues feeling” doesn’t quite capture the deepness I heard. I witnessed a thumbnail history of the African in America told through sound. Many players vocalize through their horns, but McPhee has his own way. Likewise, he likes to produce sound on his sax without blowing, by fingering alone. His subsequent percussion discussion with Corsano was delicate and pointed.


McPhee told me when he was new to New York, he’d practice in the same building on Barrow Street where Ornette Coleman had a loft, and they’d cross paths. Once Ornette knocked on his door to offer him a trumpet. After John Coltrane’s funeral at St. Peter’s, McPhee was ready to split when Ornette invited him to ride to the Long Island cemetery in his limo. The Clifford Thornton recording was made the next day. The opportunities openness provides.


Both McPhee and Corsano are open. Open improvisers, open hearted, open to playing with a wide range of musicians; hell, they’re even open for business.

I’ve known Chris Corsano since the late 1990s, when he worked the door for Michael Ehlers’ Fire in the Valley and Amherst Meetinghouse concerts. Since those days, he has travelled the world with Björk, Thurston Moore, Paul Dunmall, Sir Richard Bishop and dozens of others across many genres. Other than his December appearance with Mars Williams’ Ayler Xmas project (that included McPhee), this was my first time producing a concert with him. How easy and what a pleasure.


And what a drummer. Corsano is a colorist, a pile driver, a basic sound scientist, a collaborator of the highest order. At one point, he played an end-blown flute onto a membrane, producing a very satisfying drone that vibrated deeply, while McPhee’s wind-blown trumpet went up in smoke. Another time, he used three resonant bells placed on his drums, radically changing the vibe in the room. He rubbed wood blocks on the skins, bowed cymbals and used mallets with small rubber ends to produce a slew of notes and tones.


McPhee and Corsano both live in the Empire State, Poughkeepsie and Ithaca, respectively. But they are itinerant musicians in the image of Don Cherry. Travelling the world, open to what comes, making things happen, busting categories, with no regard for music industry hierarchy. And no regular teaching gig. They are lifetime members of the LAL.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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