X AVANT MUSIC FESTIVAL featuring JOE McPHEE solo (at 8 pm) and performing with VICTOR BATEMAN, MICHAEL KEITH and ROB PIILONEN (10 pm) along with DEEP DARK UNITED (9 pm) at the Music Gallery (197 John), tonight (Thursday, September 21). 7 pm. $15. 416-204-1080. Rating: NNNNN
If the point of this weekend's in augural X Avant Music Festival (September 21-24) is to showcase the diversity of the contemporary improvising arts, the event organizers from the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (AIMToronto) and the Music Gallery couldn't have chosen a better musician than Joe McPhee to launch their ambitious mix-'n'-match music series.
Since bursting onto the jazz scene with the explosive Nation Time (CJR) album back in 1970, McPhee has issued more than 80 recordings in nearly as many different group configurations (on nearly as many indie labels). He's demonstrated an aggressively proactive approach to collaboration as well as exceptional skill on a wide variety of wind and reed instruments beyond the tenor saxophone for which he's best known.
Likewise, McPhee's concert appearances find the multi-instrumentalist blowing heat in constantly changing settings. Depending on the night, you might see him throwing down duo-style whooping on a B-flat clarinet over eerie synthscapes, using his sax to screech up some excitement with pianist Matthew Shipp and turntablist DJ Spooky, or trading fiery riffs with Peter Brötzmann in his muscular Chicago Tentet.
So McPhee should be just as comfortable at Arraymusic Studio (60 Atlantic) sitting in with guitarist Ken Aldcroft, accordionist Tiina Kiik, pianist Michael Snow, percussionist Jesse Stewart and trombonist Scott Thomson for the Company Night session tomorrow (Friday, September 22) and playing a trio set with pianist Lee Pui Ming and drummer Joe Sorbara on Saturday (September 23).
"Being thrust into situations with unfamiliar collaborators where you haven't got a clue what might happen may be a daunting idea for some musicians, but I find that really exciting," says McPhee from Poughkeepsie, New York. "So I'm very much looking forward to meeting some new people and seeing what fun we can have at this festival."
Throwing down with talented musicians he's never heard before isn't the only challenge facing McPhee at X Avant. He's also performing for the first time on solo alto saxophone, inspired by late, great Canadian alto saxophonist Maury Coles, whom he got to know briefly before he died at the age of 70 in 2001.
"Just before Maury passed away, he sent me a collection of some recordings he'd made, and among them was a tape of him playing alto saxophone solo that I've been listening to quite a bit lately. I recently got myself an alto, and I thought this festival in Toronto might be the right time and place for a solo performance, which I'd like to dedicate to Maury.
"Some people compare performing solo to a high-wire act, but to me it's more like walking naked on the edge of a razor blade. I try not to do too much advance planning, maybe just have some basic idea of where I want to go in the time allotted. I just try to tell a story without playing too many notes.
"Once I get started, I get into a zone where it's kinda like meditation, and it seems like it's all over in a flash.
"Of course, there have been times when I started so intensely, I felt like I'd played everything I knew in the first five minutes, and then thought, 'Um, now what?' You can't just stand there and vamp for the next 30 minutes or jump up and down; you've got to create something interesting for the audience.
"I like that challenge."