One Track Mind: Joe McPhee "Give Them Flowers While They're Here" (1992)

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by Pico

Tribute records to living icons don’t occur nearly as frequently as the salutes to fallen musical heroes, but they do happen here and there. I was reminded of that occurrence when I covered Jeff Richman’s celebration of Jeff Beck’s music last year.

Similarly, avant garde saxophone player Joe McPhee didn’t wait until one of his progressive jazz heroes Jimmy Giuffre, born in 1921, was dead and gone before crafting together an album paying homage to this accomplished clarinetist. In the early nineties, McPhee got his trio together (André Jaume-bass clarinet/tenor sax and Raymond Boni-guitar) and put together a batch of either Giuffre songs or originals inspired by Giuffre he collectively called Impressions of Jimmy Giuffre. The resulting record is at once one of McPhee’s most tuneful and yet advanced sounding records of his recording career.

The leader keeps the proceedings interesting not just by interspersing his own songs with Giuffre’s, but also uses his two cohorts in every combination: trio, duo or solo. With no traditional rhythm section, it’s left to the three to carry the melody, harmony and rhythm, but the strong rapport they have allows them to pull that off. It’s a tender, heartfelt session that I’m sure Giuffre himself felt honored to have inspired.

One of the highlights is the self-penned “Give Them Flowers While They’re Here.” The tender cut features all three players, but it’s the guitar player who gives the track its personality. Boni’s unique gifts is his very rich sound and strong sense of rhythm. He impresses more as a rhythm guitarist on this album than many guitarists do with soloing. This French free jazz guitar player with Gypsy voicings in his style carries the lazily flowing tune with his swinging waltzing rhythm using some full-sounding jazz chords that switch to a free flow of ascending notes in a crescendo while the two horn players harmonize the main melodic line.

After those perfectly synced unison lines, Jaume solos first with his tenor sax while McPhee follows on soprano. Jaume’s improvises with both swing and emotion while McPhee is measured and melancholy. Both of these performances are sincere and wholehearted, clearly proving that the tribute is not just idle talk.

This song sounds good to me on any day, but it’s especially poignant at this time. That’s because appreciating those who are still with us takes on special significance on this Easter weekend. Growing up Catholic my childhood memories from this time of the year include going through the Stations of the Cross.

For the unfamiliar, this ritual involves visiting each of the 14 episodes of Jesus’ Good Friday ordeal from his condemnation through his carrying of the Cross to his death and burial. Every one of these episodes, or “stations” come with a moral that could be applied to everyday life. The lesson taken from the 13th Station, where the deceased Jesus is taken down from the Cross, is to appreciate people while they are still among us, much as McPhee did with Giuffre.

As explained by Catholic.Org:

As an adult, I seem to be kinder when someone dies. If only I could learn to see the good things about them while they were alive. If only I would tell those around me how much I love them, while I still have the opportunity to do so.

Regardless of your faith, it’s universally a good lesson of life to follow. When it’s followed by talented musicians like Joe McPhee and his colleagues, inspired music is the usual result.

Joe McPhee – Impressions of Jimmy Giuffre (CD currently unavailable)

This One Track Mind is dedicated to my Mother and Father, both of whom I can still enjoy and appreciate their time here on Earth.

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