Like nearly all the 200 CDs released since 1996 on Bob Rusch’s CIMP label (for Creative Improvised Music Projects, pronounced “simp”), Trio-X’s Journey was recorded direct to two-track in real time—with no editing, resequencing, or remixing—in Rusch’s “Spirit Room” studio on his farm in Redwood, New York. Just when you’re thinking that the session could stand a little horseplay—following the brisk, as-serious-as-your-life opener and the suspenseful, ballad-like title number—it arrives in the form of “Jaywalkin’,” a thumper whose title I initially misread as “Jayhawkin’,” assuming references to both Sonny Rollins’s pecking style of the late 1950s and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Trio-X are a co-op, a point reinforced by their collective improvisations and by the CD’s aural imaging, which situates Jay Rosen’s drums in the center channel, where a conventional mix would place Joe McPhee’s tenor saxophone. Here, Rosen and bassist Dominic Duval line up behind McPhee as he worries a basic riff for nine wild minutes. Inevitably landing on the beat, though usually an elusive internal one rather than Rosen’s crushing four-four, McPhee sounds like a big guy inexplicably frowning as he dances nimbly. Toward the climax, he holds you by humming through his mouthpiece a different series of notes than the ones he’s fingering—a saxophone shock effect since Coltrane that McPhee uses tastefully and strategically, more like Albert Mangelsdorff and other European trombonists, producing split tones that create the momentary illusion of overdubbing.
The track is deliciously off-kilter, and much else on Journey is as striking, if not as immediately ear-catching—notably “Albert’s Alto,” on which McPhee’s fluttering tonality and lurching phrasing recall Ayler minus the opera bouffe. Two of the performances don’t quite jell: “Everything in Nothing Flat” is a compendium of avant-garde clichés from its opening saxophone blat, and the trio never lures the snake out of the basket on the sinuous “Blue Moves.” But McPhee—an entirely self-taught saxophonist who began his career heeding Pharoah Sanders’s call to black cosmic consciousness in the early 1970s, and who still occasionally doubles on trumpet, though not here—has unexpectedly blossomed into a virtuoso, and he’s found his Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell in Duval and Rosen.
Though generally ignored by the jazz press when it was released last summer—blame CIMP’s iffy distribution and Rusch’s stinginess with promos—Journey finished a strong fourth in Cadence‘s 2003 readers’ poll. This made sense: The magazine is another Rusch subsidiary, along with North Country Distributors, which specializes in the unlikely combination of high-end audio and latter-day free jazz. CIMP’s releases bear a sticker reading “Engineered for Audiophile Sound”; I might be more appreciative if I could afford a better system and wasn’t stuck on those 1960s ESP-Disks, whose dim sound increased their underground cachet. As admirable in theory as I find Rusch’s aural verité, to my ears his releases frequently could use a little equalization and reverb, not to mention some editing; Journey‘s title track is ultimately a moving experience, but not much would have been lost if it had started five minutes in, when Rosen introduces a Spanish tinge and what passes for a tempo. There’s something almost comically inbred about CIMP: The engineer, illustrator, and typesetter all have the last name Rusch, and the family patriarch’s liner essays inevitably describe how at peace with themselves the musicians were in the Spirit Room’s bucolic surroundings, and how much they enjoyed their meals (Susan Rusch, Bob’s wife, gets a credit for “hospitality”).
Yet glancing at the catalog and seeing the names of Billy Bang, John Tchicai, Paul Smoker, Khan Jamal, and the late Frank Lowe, I’m just grateful that somebody is tending to the outcat community—mavericks like McPhee, who are treated like dignitaries at the Vision Festival and improv gatherings in Canada and Europe, but considered marginal everywhere else. And I can think of two recent CIMPs where the audiophile sound clearly makes a difference: Mark Dresser and Ray Anderson’s Nine Songs Together, a program of loquacious duets intimately captured by Marc D. Rusch in such a way as to give a sense of the bassist’s wood and the trombonist’s brass, and the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra’s Celebration of the Spirit, which was recorded in an empty concert hall (standard operating procedure for classical orchestras) whose roominess brings out every felicitous detail in Ken Schaphorst’s concerto grosso “That Was/This Is” and the rondo sections of Warren Sanders’s “Elegies and Recollections.” Though little noticed, Nine Compositions (Hill) 2000, a CIMP release from that year in which Anthony Braxton tackled Blue Note-period Andrew Hill, was Braxton’s finest moment of the last few years, blessedly free of the stiffness that stymies him when interpreting music not his own. Chalk up three more to minimalist engineering, home cooking, and cows grazing in the pasture.