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Flow Trio with Joe McPhee - Winter Garden (ESP-Disk)

3 May 2021

Free jazz ain’t for everybody. Pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler used motifs to get their musicians started, but for some musicians, even that’s too much structure. For those folks, entering in a playing situation with no plan is as exciting and soul-nourishing as an expert execution of charts, or the real life realization of written tunes.

So it is with this explosive combination. Flow Trio – consisting of saxophonist Louis Belogenis, bassist Joe Morris and drummer Charles Downs – and sax monster Joe McPhee recorded Winter Garden in a single day, coming up with the pieces on the spot. Mic on, reeds to lips, brief eye contact (maybe) and go – that’s the MO here. It’s self-expression unfettered by traditional structures, jazz or not. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s pure noise. All of these musicians have decades of experience and loads of expert technique, so they know their way around their instruments. More importantly, they all know how to listen, and how to react to their colleagues’ efforts. Listen to “Recombinant” and hear how McPhee and Belogenis stir each other on, bouncing off each other’s riffs to fly into the stratosphere. Listen to the way Morris lays down a groove for Downs to circle like a hawk tracking its prey – until everybody suddenly lays out to allow the bassist his own moment in the spotlight. Or compare the way two of the disk’s epics – the sprawling, violent “Rabble-Rouser” and the haunting, luminous “Harbinger” – couldn’t be more different than each other, even though both were generated by the same ensemble using the same tools.

This is not easy listening – these musicians follow their instincts at all times, in pursuit of something elusive to the listener, and sometimes barely in focus to the performers. Nobody here is afraid of dissonance for dissonance’s sake – nor of beauty. There’s no acquiescence to listener desire here. But it’s not simple cacophony, either – McPhee, Belogenis, Morris and Downs know what they’re doing, even as they do it on the spot, second by second, and the sheer musicality of their abilities does shine through even the noisiest pieces. Not everyone wants to or is even capable of appreciating a record like Winter Garden. But those that can and do will find the trip a vastly rewarding one.