I’ve got a bit of a Baader-Meinhof thing going with James McKain. A couple of years ago, he wasn’t on my radar, and now he’s everywhere I look. That’s not a bad thing; he seems to be at the epicenter of a new movement of underground free jazz. There’s a ferocity and sui generis spirit at the heart of this crusade, as well as a DIY ethic that calls to mind the New York loft scene of the early 1970s. The no holds barred approach of this fledgling scene is being documented by numerous cassette micro-labels, hipping those with adventurous ears to the fiery delights that McKain and his ilk are engendering.
Live at Century documents a gig at the eponymous Philadelphia bar, a venue notorious for being both a hole-in-the-wall and a haven for underground music aficionados. This session represents four-fifths of the gang who recorded the ebullient Running of the Bulls cassette back in 2021. McKain and his tenor horn cross swords with the searing alto of Bay Area reedsman Tom Weeks in a cross-country duel of unrelenting bleat.
Bringing the pummel is Kevin Murray, an octopoid stick-handler currently based in NYC, whose cup runneth over in the energy department. Solidifying the line-up is bassist Jared Radichel, who gathers no moss as he finds novel trajectories along which to deploy his hands along his instrument.
With Live at Century, you immediately feel like you’re in the bar, sitting right next to the musicians. You can almost smell the sweat and beer vapors as you hear the band thank those who showed up for the show. Immediately, the quartet makes its presence known with a dual horn roar and loping bassline. A shotgun blast from Murray sends the proceedings into orbit as McKain and Weeks lock onto each other, and Radichel mauls his bass. Mid-spar, Radichel pulls out his bow for some searing arco action, which seems to open up the atmosphere somewhat, if only for a minute or two.
There are other moments of respite, such as when the two horns engage in an extended drone-like mantra or when the rhythm drops out entirely for a few minutes of pure saxophony. For the most part, however, this is a set of pure molten lava colliding with a chaotic nest of unfettered gamma rays in the middle of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction. In other words, it’s awesome!