Essential New Music: Decoy With Joe McPhee’s “AC/DC”

Photo by Dawid Laskowski

AC/DC has performed “Back In Black” many times, but Joe McPhee, who was born before any of those guys were, is back, black and looking quite fine in any classic-rock T-shirt that he pleases. On May 10, 2019, just six months before his 80th birthday, his chosen attire happened to be an AC/DC shirt, but it also said “Iron Man,” and you can be quite sure that he had the legacy of Eric Dolphy in mind when he picked it out. 

Like Dolphy, McPhee brings a variety of horns to any gig; for this one, it was a pocket trumpet and a tenor saxophone. And like Dolphy, he plays them fluently, wildly and lyrically enough to sing along with the birds. While no winged creatures joined him onstage at London’s Café Oto that night, Hammond organist Alex Hawkins represents their voices quite persuasively at several points during the two complete sets reproduced on this marvelous album.

Hawkins opens “AC” with insistent, pecking notes while McPhee, bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble loft streams of sound dense enough to baffle ground control’s radar in broad, banking arcs around the organist’s ground zero. But because flight means that you don’t stay in one place for long, they barnstorm through a quick history of jazz and its sibling sounds, taking in muscular modal bop, starburst free-form interludes and unabashedly swaggering blues. Like Dolphy’s Iron Man, this music makes no apologies for its ambition, erudition and passion. And like AC/DC, it kicks ass. 

—Bill Meyer