A Fireside Chat with Joe McPhee

By Fred Jung; published November 18, 2003

Labels are difficult to overcome. Perceptions are even more daunting. And Joe McPhee is often burdened with both: the labels of "free jazz" or "avant-garde" and the perception that his music is conceptual or theoretical (the same also holds true for the music of Anthony Braxton). But McPhee plays neither and his music is hardly highbrow (e.g., Underground Railroad). It is however, deep (but let’s not mistake deep for complexity). Joe McPhee is a "the," not an "a." He is the Joe McPhee, not a multi-instrumentalist. And he is unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Your documentation during the Sixties was politically poignant and reflective of the racially tumultuous times.

JOE MCPHEE: The recording with Clifford (Thornton), of course, he was the leader and he set the tone and direction for that (Freedom and Unity). It was recorded the day after John Coltrane’s funeral in 1967 and we were all caught up in the emotion of that. As for as my own work was concerned, when I had the opportunity to record on the CJR label, it seemed absolutely essential to me that I try to dedicate the music to people who had inspired me, people who had inspired consciousness, to honor certain people. For example, Harriet Tubman was honored on the recording Underground Railroad. Also, very importantly, there is a piece called "Message from Denmark," which is not related to the country, but Denmark Vesey, who was a slave revolutionary and not one to turn the other cheek, but take action to change things. That was in ’67. Newark was on fire and there were all kinds of things going on. Nation Time comes out of something I had heard from Amiri Baraka. The sentiments were important. They were then and they still are now. I later didn’t entirely focus on the situation as an African-American, but instead tried to broaden it into more of a human awareness and human rights. From the very beginning and even to now, I’ve included references to the human condition in the music that I’ve done. I’m as happy of that body of work today as I was then.

FJ: What are the theories behind Pauline Oliveros’ deep listening?

JM: For those who don’t know, Pauline Oliveros is a marvelous composer, teacher, philosopher, and accordionist. She holds black belts in karate. She is one of the most extraordinary people over the last two centuries. I came into contact with her in 1981 when I was invited to perform in San Francisco. I was having some problems. I had dropped my tenor saxophone in the airport and it had to be repaired. I was pretty shaken and upset about all that at the time and Pauline came over and introduced herself and she was one of the people who helped calm me down and get me through that whole thing. She wanted to get together when we got back and we did and she has been a pioneer in creative music for more than fifty years now. Her concept of deep listening is about listening with the whole being, the whole self. It’s about complete musicianship and improvisation. It is one thing to listen. A lot of people listen. Very few people hear. It is about learning how to hear and reach the child inside you. I just find her just absolutely inspirational, being in her presence, her teaching methods, her meditation methods, all have been very helpful to me. She is always at the forefront of the electronic revolution. She is a big fan of Star Trek and that sort of science fiction stuff, as am I.

FJ: You are a multi-instrumentalist, not unlike Ornette Coleman or the various persons associated with the AACM.

“I like to think of myself as a muse-ician, somebody who makes magic with the muses.”

JM: To touch on briefly what you were saying about the AACM and Roscoe Mitchell and Ornette, they have all been very important parts of my development and inspiration in terms of the direction with these various instruments. I began playing trumpet. My father was a trumpet player and he started me when I was about eight years old. He was a strict disciplinarian and was certain you should stick with one instrument and really develop that as fully as you could. I agreed and went along with that. After a while, there is a bit of trying to develop your own identity and I kept hearing the saxophone, especially after I heard Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, a whole range of people had influenced me, but it was the sound of Albert Ayler that absolutely grabbed me. I borrowed a tenor from a friend one day and went into a club where I had been playing trumpet and just started to blow. I was told not to come back with that instrument again because it was threatening to the jobs of the people that were there. So for a year, I got a method book and learned how to play the saxophone from that and listening to a lot of music. Then I began to incorporate the reed instruments with the brass. I saw Don Cherry in 1963 when he was playing with Sonny Rollins. I saw him at Birdland. I was in the army and I had a weekend pass to New York. I found the music of Don Cherry and that led me to playing the pocket trumpet. Eventually, through gifts sometimes, my alto clarinet was a gift, I learned how to play that. I incorporated that into various things that I do. I use guitar effects, pedals and stuff, things I learned from Pauline and I try to incorporate that. That is how it sort of came about. I am still fooling around with little instruments and little electronic things to this day.

FJ: A person’s legacy is generally equated with the amount of time he or she is on earth. Ayler, although he played publicly for less than a decade, influenced a generation of musicians.

JM: He was very significant for me and I try in my work to maintain my own identity, but also to touch, not only on the legacy, on what I know of it and what it means to me by trying to infuse the emotion, the intelligence, and the beauty of that music and try to pass it on and in a way, keep Albert alive.

FJ: What is Po Music?

JM: It comes from an ancient symbol that looks like a horse’s head backwards. It also comes from the work of Dr. Edward de Bono. I had read a book in 1981 about lateral thinking and it intrigued me as just a way of finding a method to get past my own clich’s and discover new ideas out of things that were already there. I use it as an indicator that provocation is taking place. I used to use Po Music, to show that what you’re hearing is not necessarily what it is. For example, I would play some music out of the bebop tradition. I did on a recording called Oleo. We played a Sonny Rollins piece, but I am not a bebop player. That’s a life and a tradition I highly respect, but I don’t consider myself a bebop player. If we play this Sonny Rollins composition, we play it in our own style and try to move it to another place and find life in it as we see it.

FJ: How do you see yourself?

JM: I am co-opting a term that I heard fairly recently. I like to think of myself as a muse-ician, somebody who makes magic with the muses. I am a musician and I hope I can stay healthy and play some good music. That’s all. It is no more complicated than that.

FJ: And you are continuing your work with Trio X: Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen?

JM: First, there is a misconception that it is my band. It’s not. It is a cooperative with Dominic Duval on bass and Jay Rosen on percussion. What happened was in 1997, I was invited to play at a John Coltrane birthday celebration at the Knitting Factory. Earlier that year, I got a telephone call from Dominic Duval, who I didn’t know and he said that he wanted to play with me. I thought, "Why would he want to play with me? I don’t even have a band." I played more in Europe at that point than I had ever had in the United States. When this opportunity came to play in this Coltrane celebration, I called Dominic and another good friend here, who has been my alter ego, Joe Giardullo, a saxophone, reed player and put this band together. In fact, when I arrived at the Knitting Factory, I had only seen Dominic photographed in the newspaper when he was playing with Cecil Taylor. That was the first performance. The next one was 1998 at the Vision Festival. We didn’t have a name and after the concert, we did a recording at CIMP the next day and we still didn’t have a name. After our concert at the Vision Festival, no one wrote about us. We were dismissed I guess. We just took the name Trio X and that is the legend of Trio X.

FJ: Joe Giardullo is in your Bluette with Duval and Michael Bisio.

JM: Dominic is a part of it with Bisio, two basses and two horns. I had been playing with Michael Bisio on a couple of occasions. Mike and I did a couple of duet recordings for CIMP and then I met Dominic. It came to pass that a concert came up and Michael was in the area with Dominic and that is how that came about.

FJ: You mentioned a handful of years ago, you were playing more in Europe than you were here in the States, is that still the case?

JM: No and I have to say, Fred, between 1980 and 1994, I virtually didn’t play here at all. Part of that may have come from the mistaken idea that I lived in Europe because I played so much there. Then I was invited to play at the Empty Bottle Festival by John Corbett and Ken Vandermark in Chicago and after that, it seemed to open doors for me to play more in this country. Other than that, I played in France in a trio with Raymond Boni and Andr’ Jaume. Now, certain things have opened up with Trio X and playing with a group, which also included Dominic, but a different drummer, John Heward from Montreal, called Undersound. We had a sextet at one point that included Dominic, Bisio, Joe Giardullo, Roy Campbell, Jay Rosen, and myself called Urban Assault Vehicle and in some circles people took offense at the word "assault."

FJ: People are easily offended. Was the sextet documented?

JM: There was a recording done at the Knitting Factory. I hope at some point it gets out because there is some very interesting stuff there.

FJ: Bob Rusch should be acknowledged for documenting your playing on CIMP, since the majority of your earlier work on the hatOLOGY label has been out of print.

JM: Yeah, including the whole era of solo material. I hope at some point, that is re-released. I’ve had real success with the Atavistic re-release of the CJR material.

FJ: Is there a reason why you have never played in Los Angeles?

JM: I’ve never been invited. I know some musicians in the area, but I’ve never been invited. It is not a closed door. I am one of the members of Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet and we are planning something. The guys in that Tentet are some of the finest musicians you will ever come across. Also, I am in a quartet called The Thing featuring Mats Gustafsson on reeds, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, and Ingebrigt H’ker Flaten on bass, plus myself.

FJ: And the future?

JM: The last CJR recording was done in 1974, duets with a synthesizer player, John Snyder. The Atavistic re-release will include a concert from Woodstock in ’76 that has never been heard. I am looking forward to that. Another thing that was recorded right after the tour with the Tentet, it’s a quartet with Peter Brotzmann, Michael Zerang, and Kent Kessler. I am playing tenor. It is coming on Hat Hut. It is an album that kind of focuses on ballads. That will be a revelation for people who hear only one side of Brotzmann. That I am very excited about. I am playing a recording with Raymond Boni of music inspired by Django Reinhardt and dedicated to Sidney Bechet.