Joe McPhee and Decoy at Cafe Oto, 29/10/11

Joe McPhee and John Edwards, by Scott McMillan

I see the rhythm section of Steve Noble and John Edwards together in London quite often, but I’ve never managed to catch one of their rare appearances in Decoy, a trio which also features keyboard player Alexander Hawkins. As soon as you walk into the venue in which they are performing, the reasons for the infrequency of this combination are very tangible on stage: Hawkins plays an original Hammond B3 organ through an original Leslie cabinet. Those are some seriously big, seriously expensive, and seriously difficult to transport pieces of kit. However, they also make a seriously wonderful sound; particularly when deployed not just in conjunction with the always listenable Noble and Edwards, but with the seriously great Joe McPhee sitting in too.

I was a little disappointed when I last encountered McPhee as part of Peter Brotzmann’s tentet: not because there was anything intrinsically wrong with his playing, but because by restricting himself to some stern-faced pocket trumpet, I didn’t get the chance to hear him let rip gloriously on the saxophone, the instrument with which he is most commonly associated. His recent recorded sax output, whether solo (2009’s Alto), in a duo (this year’s Under A Double Moon with Chris Corsano) or with his Survival Unit trio, has veered from the incandescent to the luminous, the utterly sensational to the highly sensitive. As good as anything since his 1971 debut Nation Time, for sure. He continued this fine form tonight, playing sparingly and thoughtfully, only contributing where he had something to say. But when he had something to say, he said it with irrefutable force: melody lines were spun out and then teased at repeatedly until they became ragged relations of their previous forms. Even his trumpet lines here were a contrast to those in the tentet – not just because he had more space, but because he played it with the joie de vivre of a Don Cherry.

McPhee wasn’t even the most impressive aspect of this incredible show. I’ve probably seen John Edwards upwards of fifty times, but I’ve rarely seen him play quite as well as he did tonight. Edwards is usually at his best when playing with Steve Noble, as he seems to know that no matter how far out he goes, he won’t lose the drummer, but this was outrageous tonight. He invariably opened the pieces with a riot of a solo, jamming his bow under the strings, wedging strings together into v shapes, moaning loudly, letting off huge one note bass bombs, and just generally fixing the energy level for the night at its highest possible setting. Noble, as usual, would rummage around in his kit to find an answer to every question Edwards asked, from clanging on metal bowls to slapping out meaty mutant funk, keeping it all on point, and pointing far forward.

Alexander Hawkins and Steve Noble, by Scott McMillan

But special mention has to go to that Hammond B3 organ, and to the man who played it, Alexander Hawkins. The instrument was used at times to add that distinctive tonal colour to some of the group improvisations, with Hawkins’s fingers dancing lightly across the keys like soft wind through grasses. But when Hawkins took charge, as he did near the start of a phenomenal second set, he totally stole the show. He built up a solo from mere ripples to a point where it was as if he was physically swimming through sound, changing from front crawl to a furious breast stroke as he switched from the upper to lower manuals and performed huge glissando runs with the whole of his forearms (in terms of B3 proponents, this was much more Sun Ra than Jimmy Smith, Hawkins swam right out into the spaceways). Some of the the organ’s most interesting features are the ways it allows the performer to manipulate the harmonics of the sound it is producing, which raised the problem of how precisely to take advantage of those effects when in full flow. Hawkins’s solution was to jab at the organ’s drawbars with his nose, one final surprise in a show that surpassed all expectations to become one of the very best things I’ve seen this year.