MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Susan Alcorn, Joe McPhee And Ken Vandermark’s “Bing Says Ming”

Even free improvisers take requests, after a fashion. They’ll make up their own mind what to play, but they’re open to persuasion about where, when and with whom. It took one invitation by Nathan Cross, a promoter and the proprietor of the Astral Spirits label, to get pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn on the same stage with brass and reeds master Joe McPhee in 2016. It took another to get saxophone/clarinet player Ken Vandermark to join the duo in 2017. You could say that Invitation To A Dream, the LP that documents their very first encounter, is Cross’ dream come true. 

The fortunes of McPhee, a septuagenarian from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and the Chicago-based Vandermark, who’s a quarter century younger, are inextricably tangled. Vandermark has said that McPhee’s Tenor album set him on the avant-garde jazz path he’s been on since he was 17. But since 1996, they’ve been staunch partners in improvisation. The Baltimore-based Alcorn spent years playing in Western swing and C&W bands before branching into free improvisation. While she’s performed at some of the same festivals as McPhee, she had never played with Vandermark until the day they recorded Invitation To A Dream.

But there’s nothing ephemeral or hesitant about this session. On “Bing Says Mind,” their staggered entrances create a platform for deeply affecting, musically rigorous expression. McPhee sings through his soprano saxophone, creating a hyper-emotional display that transcends language over a backdrop of radiant, droning strings. Alcorn similarly reaches beyond her instrument’s known vocabulary, fashioning an eerie tableau from abstract, plucked shapes and abrupt scrapes. Then McPhee switches to pocket trumpet, and Vandermark steps in on tenor saxophone for a brief tangle, which resolves into a coda full of longing and dignity. 

We’re proud to premiere “Bing Says Mind” today on magnetmagazine.com. Check it out below.

—Bill Meyer