Joe McPhee and John Heward

(b. 1939)

mode avant 05

Voices: Ten Improvisations


Avant 05 Joe MCPHEE/John HEWARD: Voices: 10 Improvisations – Joe McPhee, pocket trumpet, alto sax and John Heward, drums, kalimba, percussion.

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Voices: Ten Improvisations
(viewed Feb. 7, 2013). Joe McPhee, pocket trumpet, alto saxophone, bowl of water ; John Heward, drums, kalimba. Recorded Jun. 15-16, 2006, The Pines, Montreal. Previously released as a compact disc.

Improvisation 1   (2:40)
Improvisation 2   (8:11)
Improvisation 3   (5:44)
Improvisation 4   (2:38)
Improvisation 5   (3:06)
Improvisation 6   (5:21)
Improvisation 7   (2:44)
Improvisation 8   (6:42)
Improvisation 9   (12:43)
Improvisation 10   (7:19)

“Two people on two hot June afternoons. A studio, an experienced and appreciative engineer. A deep need to find music. Total improvisation on larger music that existed, exists and will exist as long as there are voices.”
— John Heward on recording Voices: 10 Improvisations, in June 2006

Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, alto sax)
Since emerging on the creative jazz and new music scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Joe McPhee has been a deeply emotional composer, improviser, and multi-instrumentalist, as well as a conceptualist and theoretician. He has worked with musicians ranging from Peter Brötzmann to Pauline Oliveros. McPhee has recorded for numerous labels including Hat Hut, CjR, Cadence, CIMP, Okkadisk, Music & Arts, and Victo.

John Heward (drums, kalimba, percussion)
John Heward is a Montreal-based drummer/painter/sculptor who has quietly become one of the world’s leading percussionist working in the field of contemporary improvised music, new music, and avant jazz. He has played with music luminaries including David Prentice, Glenn Spearman, Malcolm Goldstein, Joe McPhee, Dominic Duval, Lisle Ellis, Paul Bley, Joe Giardullo, and many others, who have sought him out during their Canadian sojourns. As Bill Smith of Coda put it, “John is one of Canada’s foremost improvising percussionists.”


Joe McPhee and John Heward
Voices: 10 Improvisations

Mode avant 05

This superb pairing of two top-flight improvisors reminds me of why I listen to this music. It’s not about ‘music’, it’s about sounds and their making. It’s a given that these two can really ‘play’. McPhee established that in the immediate post-Coltrane era, and Heward – while I know little about him except that he’s also a visual artist who recorded a duo album on Avant with Steve Lacy – I’m sure he can really whack those tubs. The point, however, is that they don’t ‘just play’, they also listen – and they refrain from playing.

So each of these ten pieces is like a little jewel of sound that two guys built out of powdered glass in the afternoon sun and then blew away. I could listen all winter for how they did it, and be none the wiser; and yet wiser for contemplating it – because sometimes questions teach more than answers. These two guys have recorded before, in a trio. Here, the absence of a rhythm ‘section’ allows the sound to float. Heward is free to play the drums rather than just hit them, an impression heightened by his frequent use of kalimba. McPhee makes liberal use of pocket trumpet as well as alto sax, extending his technique peripherally with valve sounds, and a bowl of water. The results are analogous to natural sounds, as if we could rely on a squeaking door to know which part of the hinge makes the most engaging groans. That’s a door I could listen to all day.
— Bruce Russell, The Wire, July 2008

Joe McPhee and John Heward
Voices: 10 Improvisations

Mode avant 05

Voices: 10 Improvisations, like Bare Essentials, has a surreal quality. In “Improvisation 1,” American saxophonist Joe McPhee, who has performed with Brötzmann on several occasions since 1998 in quartets and the mighty Chicago Tentet, uses the pocket trumpet to create noises that sound like rain on a rooftop or fingers drumming on wood. McPhee then switches to soprano sax in “Improvisation 2” and Canadian drummer John Heward chimes in on the kalimba. The result is enigmatic and beautifully ethereal. These two songs lend versatility to the rest of the album, which manages to sound atmospheric and worldly.
— Ivana Ng, All About Jazz, 19 July 2008

Joe McPhee and John Heward
Voices: 10 Improvisations

Mode avant 05

Being able to speak a language well implies a command of its syntactical dimensions. A fearless approach to maximizing the expression of ideas within language signifies creativity. Common to both a command of language and creativity is the principle of voice, which distinguishes itself from all similar practice. In music, voice simply, unquestionably, identifies how the musician and instrument mix.

Voices: 10 Improvisations, featuring brass and reedman, Joe McPhee, and percussionist John Heward, opens with the minimal yet profound “Improvisation 1.” McPhee’s pocket trumpet is extremely close to the microphone, the sound bubbly, full of breath and life-forming – a signifier of Beginning. From there, the musical concepts grow and expand. The pocket trumpet slowly wakes up and sharpens its personality.

Applying himself in the same way, Heward introduces himself on “Improvisation 2” with the kalimba (thumb piano). The dullness of the kalimba contrasts with the resonance that occurs when McPhee blows the pocket trumpet with precision. At the turning point in this track, Heward switches to the drum set, as McPhee leaves the melody, launches into abstraction, and returns to a recapitulation of the theme to close. McPhee engages his pocket trumpet to a point where his breath can push forth no more sound. He then takes up the soprano sax to create the next stirring voice.

A dynamic of difference between the two players prolongs the exploration of how best the two instrumentalists can speak their language. Both musicians take their instruments to their extremes but not in an explosive sense. Peaks are touched briefly and subtly within the limits of the instruments, as each musician meets the needs of the other.

The dry quality of the snare played with hands instead of sticks, the non-resonance of the kalimba, mallets on the tom and the slightest cymbal sibilance is pitted against the way in which the soprano flares with a liquid ring of tremolos, unabashed arpeggios and the squeal that is emitted as the reed meets the tongue for an elegant melody. In “Improvisations 8” and “Improvisations 9,” the sax and drums fully unwind and unravel in continuous motion.

Considered as a whole, the recording possesses proportion, with the music moving forth as a discussion. There are very few repetitions of a horn phrase or drum riff. Both players, either singly or in relation to one another, take steps that are unique. The solos are few; neither musician allowing the other to monopolize the musical space. The rhythm circulates within the boldness of statements rather than being exposed outright. Bent pitches, split tones and dissonance on the saxophone creep in only towards the conclusion of the recording.

The purity and range of tone emanating from the pocket trumpet and soprano give this recording presence, notwithstanding the design of Voices, which itself glows with integrity. Integrity that is cultivated from diversity, invested with purpose and substance, and evocative of whatever the next moments offer.
— Lyn Horton, All About Jazz online, May 18, 2008


Also on Mode Records with John Heward:
Steve Lacy and John Heward: Recessional (for Oliver Johnson)
     (Mode/Avant 04)

John Heward Profile