Joe McPhee Interview at All About Jazz, 2002
By MICHAEL ANTON PARKER, Published: June 16, 2005; This interview was originally published in August 2002.
Joe McPhee is having a hard time believing the fact that he is a legend. But it's true, and there are a lot of awfully good reasons for it. First of all, that tone! How can one human being and a metal tube make those sounds? McPhee's horns are always rapturously engaged in a liberation dance for sounds that have spent millenia waiting to be heard. And he doesn't just set them free; he arranges for them a true life in the audible world, a life filled with purpose and joy. The key word here is "always:" McPhee's capacity for timbral revelation is present in the full range of his work, from the breathtaking blasts of spontaneously sculpted energy that hurl the spirits of everyone present into the stratosphere, to the unforced adventures in melody that can make a face go from dry to moist in 10 milliseconds flat, or to the pensive episodes that offer glimpses of rarely-seen Feldmanesque truths about musical perception. And to add incredulity to amazement, he can do all this on both brass and reeds! Indeed, he is fully prepared at all times to ignore his lip's pleas for mercy and put down his tenor sax in exchange for a pocket trumpet, or trade slide trombone for soprano sax. Yes, this is all true - I have witnesses!
McPhee has repaid many of his musical debts many times over. He fully initiated himself into the secrets of Albert Ayler's gripping soul cry in the late '60s after returning home from his stint as a musician in the Army, but McPhee's expressive range is so much broader than Ayler's that his music rarely finds the time to drop hints of this deep knowledge. He is quick to acknowledge his gratitude to Ayler, though, and he recently led an illustrious quartet of bassists (Dominic Duval, Michael Bisio, Paul Rogers, Claude Tchamitchian) in his affectionate Albert Ayler 2000 Project. Also, he credits his early contact with Dewey Redman for planting the seed of his staggering capacity to independently and precisely vocalize while playing saxophone. But I don't think Redman or anyone else could have imagined the kinds of stories of McPhee would come to tell once this doorway to his glottus was opened. McPhee has also expressed his feeling of kinship to other individualistic 20th-century musicians, warmly interpreting the music of Jimmy Giuffre and dedicating an entire album of his own music (The Dream Book with Dominic Duval) to Ornette Coleman's circle. In fact, it was Ornette Coleman who invited McPhee to John Coltrane's funeral when McPhee happened to be rehearsing across the hall from Coleman's apartment in New York. McPhee still reverently remembers the experience of being alone at Coltrane's gravesite after the crowds had all left, with Coleman, Billy Higgins and Harold Avent soaking up the profound spiritual energies that were passing through the air. Among Coleman's circle, Don Cherry can be singled out as an especially important figure in McPhee's early development, perhaps even to the extent of displacing his earlier trumpet hero, Miles Davis. Some years after first hearing him, McPhee made his own contribution to Cherry's music when he devoted a week to performing in a version of "Relativity Suite" in 1972. Although this version isn't the one known to the world because of some technical problems that made it necessary to be re-recorded - at which time McPhee wasn't able to make the session - this experience provided a blueprint for McPhee's later work with larger ensembles during his Po Music period. Unlike so many musicians who find their niche and then hardly ever poke their head out to catch wind of the rest of the world, McPhee maintains an exemplary openness to new inspiration. For example, he could already put his name to a ground-breaking body of work when he first saw Evan Parker perform in 1977, yet he enthusiastically welcomed the shocking possibilities that it suggested to him. In fact, he and Parker have appeared on three records together to date, most recently a disc of duets.
I've positioned McPhee's music in a certain context of people and time, but it's all too easy to talk about the influence of these thin slices of the world that one stops to inspect on the path through one's life, so I would like to draw greater attention to what I'm certain is the single overriding influence on the music of Joe McPhee: about five decades of sticking shiny metal objects in and around his mouth and blowing, with a pure love for the sounds that result. This may seem too obvious to bear mention, but it's important; all great music comes from human beings who have given over great amounts of their energies in communion with an instrument. This may seem to reduce McPhee's music to something mundane and commonplace, but it's not mundane, because those countless hours of communion hold mysteries we may never understand, and it's not commonplace, because, although countless human beings experience this communion, it is only inevitable that a small number of them make discoveries that are true sources of astonishment and joy to other human beings. It's just that McPhee is one of them.
This deep relationship to the physical act of producing sound also delimits McPhee's compositional practice. Specifically, his compositions usually arise and exist in the form of unplanned performances (free improvisation) and, even when he avails himself of pre- performance strategies, they are applied to performances that he crucially participates in; you won't find McPhee spilling ink for the Kronos Quartet or Ensemble Modern and then relaxing in the audience. Thus, in the great bifurcation of performance and composition that has occurred in recent centuries, McPhee journeys firmly along the path where the two are inseparable, the path that can claim greater validation across time and culture. The role of pre-performance strategies has diminished in importance over time for McPhee, but he has variously deployed conventional notation, graphic notation (taking his cue from Lukas Foss) and verbal instructions over the years. He even did some rare experimentation with overdubbing for his 1996 solo recording As Serious As Your Life, not unlike peers such as Evan Parker and John Butcher. One of McPhee's simplest and most inspired strategies was realized with the piece "Dark Doings" from 1996's Legend Street 2: he had the lights turned off to eliminate the possibility of visual cues passing between the musicians. With this kind of sensitivity to the psychology of the moment and the discipline of careful listening, it's no surprise that McPhee has found plenty of common ground during a handful of collaborations with fellow rural New York resident Pauline Oliveros, whose radical, yet deceptively simple, ideas will surely take many more decades to reveal their true import. We can profit immeasurably from examining McPhee's own words on the topic of methodology:
"There is always form there, whether it's a form that can be repeated - and I've been trying for sometime now to back away from that; I like to find something new each time and take the sum total of my experience - just a human experience - and include musical experience also and try to fashion something new. I may take time or I might take pitch or something and use it as a vessel in which the contents are fluid and always changing, to give it shape like that. I don't see very much difference between a composition that's written down and can be repeated from one where I just start from wherever I am and create it; I always have a sense of beginning and ending. I know that there's been a lot of emphasis of throwing up paper on stands and stuff like that, but I would prefer the musicians to play the music and play themselves and to play their experiences rather than to read something." (from a 1996 radio interview with John Corbett.)
A pretty remarkable recent testimony to this philosophy was a freely improvised meeting between McPhee, Mat Maneri, John McClellan and Joe Morris in New York on Oct. 11, 2001. Four deeply individualistic musicians played the moment and created totally unexpected music of tense beauty and transparent form, with McPhee inserting heart- wrenching tenor cries into the sublime rhythmic understatement of the Maneri-isms that were erected for the occasion.
Anyone who follows contemporary creative music can supply plenty of examples of musicians whose fame lags far behind their artistry and, although McPhee's profile has risen quite a bit in recent years, there are many listeners who bemoan his lack of superstardom. McPhee himself has never been particularly aggressive about self- promotion, and seems content to just follow his sonic muse and enjoy the spirited accolades of a relatively small number of connoisseurs. Despite living from the age of 3 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a two-hour train ride from the big city, he has always shied away from thrusting himself on the scene and trying to make a stir. In fact, even when he was regularly visiting the city in the late '60s and early '70s, he retained a sort of outsider status, preferring not to get sucked into the dark side of the scene. In a 1977 interview with Bob Rusch of Cadence, he explained:
"Some things I've avoided because there are certain lifestyles and certain ways of doing things that I prefer not to have to deal with if I don't have to - New York was such a hassle. There were a lot of musicians running around, falling apart, and I didn't want to be part of that. I've seen too many people just disintegrate right before my eyes. Some of my friends are dead as a result of that. It's one way to live - it's not mine."
Fortunately for the ear-minded world, McPhee developed strong contacts with people in France and Switzerland during the '70s, resulting in numerous performance and recording opportunities that compensated for his lack of careerism in his home country. One of his most significant European contacts came as result of Swiss pharmaceutical chemist and jazz fan Werner Uehlinger hearing some of the records McPhee released on CJR, a label founded by his painter friend Craig Johnson that put out 1969's Underground Railroad, 1970's Nation Time, 1971's Trinity, and 1974's Pieces of Light. Uehlinger got into contact with Johnson and McPhee and visited them in Poughkeepsie during a business trip to the states in 1974. The result of Uehlinger's enthusiasm for McPhee's music was 1974's Black Magic Man, the release that gave birth to the prolific hat HUT label.
The content of his music was deeply impacted by his association with Frenchmen Andre Jaume and Raymond Boni, who he first played together with in 1979 for the album Old Eyes. These three musicians formed a tightly knit creative music unit that spawned a number of recordings and concert tours. McPhee thinks of these men as family and they still retain a deep friendship, with a disc of duets between Boni and McPhee recently being released by Emouvance. These days, McPhee has an especially close association with bass giants Dominic Duval and Michael Bisio, multi-reedist and flutist Joe Giardullo, and a number of other strong voices in contemporary creative music. Crucially, though, McPhee's openness to collaboration is not limited to a chosen few peers; he has continually welcomed new situations and new musicians, both known and unknown, with a stunning capacity to adapt to and capitalize on the unique opportunities for musical creation that each new context provides, whether he's pushing the envelope of lyrical abstraction in his duets with Jerome Bourdellon (Novio Iolu) or soaring with the multi-directional pulses of Hamid Drake (Emancipation Proclamation). He has great praise for a number of completely unknown musicians that do their thing far away from the urban centers of media exposure, and he cares about a person's music, not their resume:
"I've played with amateurs who play with so much heart and soul - I'd much prefer to play with them than with some "professionals" who have ego up the ass! I don't care about that. I've had some workshops where people come and play all the chord changes as fast as they can, and I throw 'em out!" (from a 1998 conversation between McPhee, Ken Vandermark and John Corbett)
It would be nice if I could single out a small handful of McPhee's discs and expose the rarefied qualities that make them the most urgent for new listeners to experience, but such a small handful is most certainly not forthcoming. The simple truth is that almost every time I listen to a Joe McPhee record I think to myself "This is it! This is the record that captures him at the peak of inspiration. The other records are all great, but this one is extra special; there's something happening here that has never happened before!" While this feeling may not fully apply to his earliest recorded forays, like the recently reissued Trinity or Nation Time, which are wonderful, yet pale in comparison to what would come later, it most certainly applies to almost everything in the past 25 or so years and it most certainly applies to 1976's Tenor. That's about 50 or so records all competing for an elite status that gladly does not exist. The music of Joe McPhee is surely one of the great happy news stories of the 20th and 21st centuries: Man Makes Shockingly Beautiful Sounds! Hundreds of Recordings are Reported to Exist! Maybe this won't make it to the cover of your local supermarket tabloid, but anyone with open ears and an open heart is bound to find out about it anyway.
The following are excerpts from an interview conducted on Sept. 23, 2000, in the wake of McPhee's performances in the second annual High Zero festival in Baltimore, documented for the surprise of all on the recent recording Mister Peabody Goes to Baltimore.
All About Jazz: So I guess we'll start with the basics. Have you ever done any work with balloons?
Joe McPhee: Have I done any work with balloons. In terms of making music with balloons?
JM: Actually, yes, but, you know, not in a concert situation - just with some kids. You know, balloons that have these little horns on them, and you let out a certain amount of air and they squeak and they do things like that - just playing with children and those kind of contexts, giving, you know, various toys and things to kids and letting them make an orchestra out of it.
AAJ: Great. Actually, have you been involved with sort of music education for young children, sort of getting young children to improvise?
JM: Yeah, the first time was in Switzerland; I was invited - I think it was around 1983 or 1982 or something like that - I was invited to Switzerland to a school where I was told - well, first I was invited by a teacher who, in fact, came to that concert that's on the cover - the photograph's on the cover - of that Cadence magazine [pointing to the interviewer's copy of the January 1977 issue of Cadence, which has a picture of McPhee playing saxophone and pocket cornet simultaneously]. He liked improvisation and so-called free jazz and so on like that, and he wanted to see what would happen if I came into a school where there were these children who having some - either learning disabilities or they were considered to be, by Swiss standards, from lower-class families and therefore difficult I guess, or something like that, and what effect this process of improvisation and music - being exposed to me - would have on the kids. So I went in this school, and I took my pocket trumpet and my tenor saxophone, and an orange- painted conch shell, some bells and whistles and so on like that, and I put them in the middle of the floor - it was in a gymnasium. And then the first class was unleashed upon me and in came all these kids. First they were startled because I didn't look like any of them; they saw all of these instruments in the middle of the floor, and so that's when they all came in making a lot of noise, and then they came to a screeching halt, and like "what is this about?" They didn't speak English and I didn't speak Swiss German, but there were teachers there who were translators. So the first thing I did was a few rhythmic exercises, pounding the floor, clapping hands and so on like that, and trying to get their attention, and then I sent them all to the far corners of the room and asked them to listen, and they giggled and so forth, and they came back, and then I asked them what they heard, through these translators, of course. And they would say they heard the person next to them laughing or shuffling feet or making rude noises and so on like that. So we did some more exercises and what I was trying to do was get them to follow directions, and so on like that, in a real organized kind of way. And then I sent them away again, and I asked them to listen very carefully and come back and tell me what they heard. Now the first time they not only heard the people next to them, but they heard trucks passing outside, an airplane, a guy on a bicycle - I remember a bell and so on, but the second time they came back, and they had listened very carefully, they began to hear the breathing of the person next to them; they could hear their own heartbeat, and a high-pitched sound in their ear - it was kind of like from their own nervous systems, and they were really beginning to listen very carefully, and they were interested. So then I asked them if they wanted to try and play my instruments - of course they didn't really want to do them. I asked them if they played any instruments and so on like that. So they were all in a circle, and they tried to play the pocket trumpet and couldn't, and they'd puff out their cheeks and so on like that. And there was one little boy who was like the class clown, I guess, and they were always making fun of him and saying "Let him do it." So he did it, of course, and he really eventually could play the trumpet - not play it, but I mean he'd make sounds on it, and then he became kind of like a hero because he was adventurous enough to try it, and then he was able to make a sound, you know. And then there was one little girl who - she was very shy, and I said "you try it," and she tried it, and I said "Do any of you play any other instruments?" and she said she played the piano, so she played some little things she had learned on the piano, and no one knew she played piano - she was very shy, and all of a sudden she became sort of like, you know, very interesting, and people wanted to know her and stuff like that. And then we made some more rhythm things and so on like that, and then we sat around and asked what they thought about it, if they knew anything about jazz - of course they didn't really have any experience with that, except I think they heard of Louis Armstrong at one point, and they all said that they were gonna write me because they had, you know, such a good time, and so on. And then, that class was finished, and the second class came in. But between the first and second class I found out that there was a closet full of instruments there in that school that the teachers never let the children play with because they thought they would break them. I said, "Oh really? [not with the common rising intonation that indicates surprise, but with the special intonation that indicates he is about to set them straight]. Take every instrument out of the closet and bring it here." They just played my saxophone and my trumpet and I wasn't worrying about them breaking them, cause I didn't think they were gonna do that. Take them all out and put them in the middle of the floor. So the next class comes out, similar to the first one - they ran into the room, screaming and yelling, and they screeched to a halt when they saw me, and all of that pile of wonderful devices all over the place, you know. Same thing - we repeated the same thing, and the same result happened: they listened more intently. And then I gave them instruments and I created sections - music sections - and I had them play following my direction. Within 10 to 15 minutes I had an orchestra, organized, following directions and the teachers were sitting there with their mouths hanging open: "How can you do that? They never listen to anything. They never do what we tell them to do." So they played and so on; I let them play my instruments, and the same thing: I spoke to them and blah blah and we had a wonderful time. And that happened three times in a row. And in the end we had a little meeting, and they said "What did you do? How could you do that to them?" and I said "I didn't do anything. I just let them, you know, free, to do what they wanted to do, and they were not going to break the instruments," and I said, "You know, it's ridiculous that they're all there in the closet." They said, "Oh, we'll have to try that. So maybe something changed at that school. And then I went to another camp with a similar experience. And, finally I went touring in France with some musicians I play with - Raymond Boni, Andre Jaume and a bassist named Francois Mechali - and we went to some schools. The schools that had the most money, the kids were more open, more willing to talk about their experiences with jazz, and the people they knew, and it was similar to the Swiss experience. And then we went to a very poor school and the children hardly spoke. You know, we asked them questions about music, what do they like to do and they just sat there. And it was clear that these kids didn't have a chance; they were beaten from the very start, you know, because of the social situation, and the stigma of the fact that they didn't have a lot of money and so on like that, and it was very sad. And subsequently - I'd say about three years ago - I did the same thing at a school in Woodstock, New York, and the children were a little older, but I got them to tell me stories, make up stories, in a kind of a group situation where they would pass around an idea and create stories, and make poetry and whatever, as part of this improvisational exercise. And some of the stories were not very nice - one guy was talking about a dog on the highway, getting run over by a bus, blah blah blah - and I said, you know, "That's part of it. Okay, great [laughing]," you know, and they were all laughing, like "This is really rotten, you know, what an awful thing to say". But they had great fun, putting the story together, and then we, you know, did the same thing - made an orchestra - and I'd say within 10 or 15 minutes I had an organized orchestra of kids who could follow directions. The music teacher there was surprised that I could do that. I said "You know, did you ever think about it?" I mean, I don't know, it wasn't anything extraordinary as far as I could see.
AAJ: You started trumpet around, what, 8 years old or so, and you started tenor when you were about 27, maybe?
JM: About 28, so a 20-year window in-between there. That came about - I was interested in the saxophone for a long time, but saxophones are expensive and my father played trumpet, so we had a trumpet around. And of course Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and all these people - they were the moving forces in the music at the time - the saxophone players were. Miles Davis of course was - he was just a big hero for me - and I tended more towards that, and then Lee Morgan - oh, I suppose - oh, eventually I heard Don Cherry. Heard him with Ornette, but when I first saw Don Cherry play, with that pocket trumpet, I thought "Oh my God, that's it, I want one of those things, you know. I never heard such music in my life.
AAJ: What about some of the other instruments that you've played over the years? I was wondered if you started, you know, experimenting with other wind instruments early on, or if it's been a more recent thing that you've tried, you know, various flutes, and clarinets, and...
JM: No, I've always experimented with the instruments. I mean I play the valve trombone- that's not very different from playing the trumpet or one of those, except it's an octave lower and, in terms of a mindset, in terms of how you hear certain pitches, it takes some adjusting; in terms of the embouchure physically, it takes some differences because of the mouthpiece, and so on like that, but basically they're the same, and the saxophones - different families play in different ranges and different keys and so on, but they're basically the same techniques and so that's not such a jump. I also play some electronic instruments and so on like that, and that's - I've always been interested in that sort of thing - sounds - I collect sounds; sometimes I make tapes and so on; I just like sounds. There was a cartoon character that was in, I guess, the Sunday comics, and then on movies and stuff like that, called Gerald McBoing Boing. Gerald McBoing Boing was this little kid who couldn't speak; he could just imitate everything, and he could imitate it exactly, and so in the cartoon he never said a word; there were only pictures inside a big balloon over his head which described what it was so you knew what he was doing, and his whole world was about sound, and I loved this guy. And then when it came in the movies, and on Saturday mornings when the kids were out of school and a holiday, there would be like 25 cartoons and a movie and all the kids would go, and one or more of them would be a Gerald McBoing Boing cartoon, which would actually have the sounds instead of the balloons over his head. You know, he would open his mouth and the sound of a train would come out, you know, or an airplane, or something, but he could never speak. And Spike Jones' music, with all those instruments and all those strange arrangements. That's another hero. So I didn't see - there wasn't a very big jump from there to Ornette to Charles Mingus or things like that, because hearing all those sounds - Pithecanthropus Erectus, which is a very favorite thing for me—there's a foggy day, on one of the pieces, and you hear all these foghorns and these kind of things, and I said, "yeah, that's just the same thing—Gerald McBoing Boing and all that", you know. So when I first heard that Mingus "Pithecanthropus Erectus", I thought, "wow, that's great". I had a Miles Davis recording called Bag's Groove on Prestige—they played two versions of "Bag's Groove", and this friend of mine had the Pithecanthropus Erectus. He wanted the Miles Davis; I wanted the Pithecanthropus Erectus, so we exchanged, and, you know, I thought, "you know, I like the Pithecanthropus Erectus, but I just got rid of my Miles Davis! I must be out of my mind! Eventually I got to play, in 1981—one of the first Po Music recordings that I did—I had a band , and we played "Pithecanthropus Erectus". [looking at the interviewer's copy of the CD.] This "Pithecanthropus Erectus", quite by accident, but—if you played the Mingus one and this one overlapping, they're almost identical in terms of time.
AAJ: Actually, while we're kind of thinking about these early Po Music recordings, how did you ever meet Boni and the other people that you consistently performed with on these recordings?
JM: Well, let me see. When did I meet Boni. Oh! That's an interesting story about Raymond Boni. In 1975 I went on a tour with a synthesizer player named John Snyder, and John and I had recorded for a label called CJR, which was a label a friend of mine, Craig Johnson, and I had put together—actually, it was more Craig's idea than mine—and Craig had decided that my music was interesting and he wanted to record it, which I was ridiculous—who would ever listen to this? So, to set this up, he made a recording in 1969, which was called Underground Railroad, which I hope will be re-released on CD in the next couple of years or so. Anyway, the fourth and final recording that we did for CJR was called Pieces of Light, and it was for an ARP 2600 synthesizer and some gadgets that I had and instruments and so on like that. Well, the ARP 2600 was kind of a bulky, analog synthesizer and so on, and we were invited to France, because a friend was living there, and he said, "I got a place for you to stay—why don't you come on over, and bring your instruments, and we'll see if we can find some place for you to play. You'll have a place to stay." So we went, and, in the process, on tour, we recorded something called The Willisau Concert. At the end of that concert, it was so tumultuous with the drummer—we had a problem with the drummer, and with the woman who was our agent/manager at that time, we decided that "well, we're not going to finish the tour; we're going back to Paris." My friend who lived in Paris said, "Since you're going to be here, why don't I try to set up a concert at the American Center, and he did, and took photographs, and he made posters and put them up, and while he was on a street called the Ru Muuftard in Paris, putting up posters on a lightpost, he heard the most extraordinary guitar—the fastest guitar playing—he had ever heard in his life, so he went in this little cafe, and there was Raymond Boni rehearsing. And they got into a conversation, and he said, "we're having this concert—why don't you come?" So Boni came to the concert—I didn't know him at the time—and I played with John Snyder, synthesizer; I was in a costume, at some point; the backdrop behind was all old clothes and rags and so on, and I emerged from this big collage of old rags in this costume with the tenor coming out of my mouth and this hood over my face, and you couldn't see my face inside, and it was very dramatic, and I played "The Truth is Marching In" by Albert Ayler. Well, Boni liked Albert Ayler very much, and was taken so much by it, he said, "that's the guy I wanna play with". He didn't say that to me, but he said it to some other people, and so we were introduced and so on, and that's how we met. And it was two years before we actually were on the same concert, in 1977, together, but we still didn't play together until 1979, and on the recording session called Old Eyes. And I also met Andre Jaume at that same recording session, and we started playing, and from then on until 1991 we had this trio. The last thing we did together was a tribute to Jimmy Giuffre for his, I think, his 71st birthday, called Impressions of Jimmy Giuffre on the CELP label. Andre had been studying with Jimmy Giuffre, and I went to visit Giuffre, and we were talking about a recording of his called "The Train and the River" and I told him, "You know, it reminds me a lot of where I live because the train and the river are prominent parts of the city and the environment there, and what it was like growing up as a kid and enjoying going to see the boats on the river and the trains and so on." So he went up—and you know, it was a famous piece, that's in Jazz on Sunday Afternoon video/movie and so on—and he brought down the score, and he said, "this is part of a larger piece" and so on, and he was thrilled to hear it—I said, "you know, I really would like to play that sometime." And, uniquely, the trio that I had with Boni and Andre, and the fact that I played the valve trombone, mirrored one of his groups, so we did this whole series of music like that. That was very rewarding—to have an opportunity to do that, and to give it to Jimmy for his birthday.
AAJ: Actually, you're still playing with Boni, and it looks like there are some CDs going to be released now for the first time...
JM:Yeah, most recently we did a series of—well, it was a project that Boni wanted to do for a long time, and all the playing, we've done, and we've played duets in concert; we've never recorded duets. So there's a label in France called Emouvance, which put out some of Boni's stuff, and he got them to agree to this project, and while I was there he said, "you know, we're gonna go on tour and we'll do a whole bunch of recordings and see what happens." Well, they turned out quite wonderfully, and instead of just being one recording, I think there's enough for maybe [starts laughing] four—I don't know—at least—[laughing] maybe more. You know, because they're all different.
AAJ: Before we get too far from our discussion of instruments, actually, I want to ask about a few of the other things. I guess the two instruments that really would stand out here in terms not belonging to the same families as the instruments you typically play would be, on one hand, the didgeridu that you play sometimes—I guess your PVC didgeridu—and, on the other hand, your breath controller instrumentÃƒ?—?your MIDI instrument.
JM: Which one—where shall we begin. Let's begin with the Casio DH500 MIDI instrument, because that precedes the other one. Casio made these saxophone— sort of electronic saxophone-looking things in the early 80s, and they were supposed to be fun, and accessible to a lot of people, and they were. There's one called a DH100 which is pretty common—you can find them in used shops and all—because they don't make them anymore. The DH500, the big one that I have, is fairly rare. I found it in like Sam Ash music shop or something in New York—in White Plains, New York, and they were in a big pile—not a big pile; there were a few of them there—and I thought, "wow, that's interesting. It looks almost like a saxophone: it's bigger than the other one and it seems more saxophone-like than the other one—more possibilities—so I bought it. Well, it has it's own speaker in it, and it's also MIDI, and it can drive other things, but I particularly like the strange sound that came out of it—more theremin-like, but not exactly, and it has portamento, so you can bend pitches and so on like that, and I liked the kind of science fiction sound of it. I use it with its own sound, because, you know, trying to make it sound like a piano, an organ, or a saxophone is sort of ridiculous—why do you want to imitate some other instrument; just let it be whatever it is, and try to see what I can use it, and I've used it with Pauline Oliveros' band; I was commissioned to do a piece with that band, and it begins with that Casio, to sort of set the mood. You can amplify it and play it with guitar effects, and I like that. The PVC pipe didgeridu—I played a real didgeridu on a recording with Jerome Bourdellon called Novio Iolu. Jerome has a didgeridu, and I liked it. The PVC pipe one—it seemed to me—was very practical because I could cut it into sections and assemble it; it would fit in my luggage; it doesn't weight very much. A real didgeridu is quite heavy, and you can't cut it up, you know; it's just the way it is. And I could also change the pitch of it slightly by varying the lengths of the pipe. It's limited. As you remember, when Harold Smith played the instrument in Philadelphia, it was extraordinary; it was powerful—I've never heard such a sound. [Harold Smith, who appears on some of McPhee's early recordings as a drummer, showed up unexpectedly with a massive didgeridu on July 26, 2000 at a Philadelphia concert by McPhee with Dominic Duval and Bobby Zankel. They hadn't seen each other in over 25 years, and Smith joined the group at the end.] It showed me therefore the limits of my PVC thing, and I had to like, you know, do something about that! I also changed the shape of mine, so that instead of playing it straight out from my face, it's more like in the shape of a saxophone; I have a bent neck and so on like that. And I'm going to play through some processing, some guitar-processing stuff, and add some little tricks to it, and I call it my "didgEridu"—"E" for electronically processed sounds", and I can manipulate pitch and add some kind of maybe rhythmic things to it—I don't know exactly what it's all gonna entail, but it's fun to play with. Well, my 50-CD set with didgEridu will probably bring all this out [laughter].
AAJ: [referring to a performance at the Red Room in Baltimore on April 1, 2000, with Joe Giardullo and Jerome Bourdellon] That Baltimore concert was—there was so much tension hanging in the air with every note, because—I think in that particular room there's a sense in which everyone trusts each other; people are there because they really care about listening. I wonder if maybe, as a musician, there are certain performance spaces where you feel more comfortable really letting go, or, you know, really losing yourself to the moment?
JM: Well that's a situation where I try to be as often as possible, because I don't want any constraints—I don't want to think about anything—like I said: the thought process will slow you down. It's very important to hear what's happening and to have a sense of the people you're playing with. And there's a lot of trust there—it's, again, akin to walking naked on a razor blade: you walk very carefully; you can do it, but you have to be careful in where you put your down and how you do it, and be respectful of other people—they can knock you off and you'll be cut to shreds, you know. That's what it's all about—not interesting to me, but, some people—that's what it's about—seeing if you can cut somebody up or whatever—these kind of competitive things—I'm not interested in that. And with Joe and with Jerome it's not competitive; it's sharing.
AAJ: When you were first getting involved with music—well, performance— in your twenties I guess, you know, the availability of electronic instruments was quite different. Were you sort of a hobbyist with electronics to an extent?
JM: With electronics? Yeah, I was always fascinated with electronics—all kind of electronics, and I always tinkered with things. One of my first experiences was—in the army I built a portable record player and I had a transmitter, which I connected it to a radio transmitter, which I could play my recordings over the radio to the people in the barracks, and I would play Coltrane and Eric Dolphy and stuff, and make it come in on their—because I'd block out the other sounds, you know, cause, although it was small, inside the building, would be powerful enough to block out certain stations, and I'd play that stuff, and nobody could ever figure out where it was coming from. [laughter]
JM: And since it ran on batteries I could it do it, you know, they said "Lights out—turn the lights out; power off", you couldn't hear anything in my room, but—
What was it like, actually, getting your hands on records when you were in the army and that kind of thing—trying to keep up with what was happening in the jazz world?
JM: It was a bit difficult. I would suppose virtually impossible as I remember—I wasn't able to find—I found a few things, but not very much, and I was stationed in Germany, so that made it doubly difficult. I took my portable recorder with me, which allowed me to play stuff for a while, because there was a difference of current- -50 cycles here, 60 cycles there—which changed the pitch of the music, even if you used a converter, so I bought eventually a turntable there, a record player—"Hi-Fi"—with these little detachable speakers, which was fine over there, and I brought it back and I couldn't play it because the pitch was wrong when we played it here. But I took a lot of stuff with me—you know, things that I was interested in—a whole collection—and there were some other people who had recordings and I listened to things there, and then I read Downbeat magazine and found out about how certain people were talking about Anti-Jazz and hating Coltrane, and hating Eric Dolphy, and saying that they were not playing real music, and that argument went on and on, and introduced to Ornette Coleman and why he didn't work and blah blah blah and so on like that. So then I heard about Albert Ayler and what was going on in various places, and it intrigued me, so of course the first thing I did was look for the music they were castigating and try and determine for myself whether I liked it, and I said, "I like it, and I don't know what they're talking about"; I had no idea why these people are carrying on like this; I guess it sold magazines or something—I don't know.
AAJ: Especially now, I think, for younger people, who, when they're first learning about Jazz, they learn about the whole history at once, and so you don't have this sense of—it's harder to appreciate why Ornette, and maybe even Albert Ayler, were actually considered to be, you know, radical, cause now it's so accepted...
JM: Yeah, a lot of the elements that were a part of their music is a part of pop music; it's been co-opted. Also, I was in an army band, and we had a certain job to do, and I went to an army band training school, because my experience, my training in music, was limited to what I learned from my father; and I played in high school and grade school; I went to band classes and I played all the time, but theory and harmony, I didn't take in school. I learned that in the army band, and the army band school was very intense, and dealt with those things, like traditional harmony and composition and stuff— ear training and things like that, which were great; it was like being in accelerated college courses. And then I'm thrust into this band in Germany, and all we did was—from the time we woke up in the morning until the evening—was rehearse. You know, we rehearsed band music, and light concert music, and stuff like that—and virtually denied any opportunity to improvise; in fact, we were forbidden to—it was just not to be done, so we did it on our free time, and we played in some little clubs and stuff, and we had a project where we'd have to compose things and play them, you know, once a week and stuff like that, so we kept ourselves going.
AAJ: So if you weren't in the army, you might not have had an opportunity to have such an intense musical education?
JM:No, probably I would've stopped playing. Maybe I would've come back to it at some point. In fact, I had no intention of playing music in the army; I wanted to study electronics; that was what I was qualified for; I went to school for that; I thought I could get some kind of practical application, you know, for a background that would get me a job at IBM or something, and I went once on a field trip—because I was studying electronics in college, electronics technology and stuff like that, and I thought I'd get this background—I went to IBM on a field trip and absolutely hated it; I hated everything that had to do with it; it was tedious, and awful people; I said, "No, man, this is not for me". And the army was an accident, with the music, because I did have that background and I qualified for this school in electronics. They said, "Okay, but we don't have an opening now, and you're finished with basic training—what do you wanna do? We need trumpet players; if you wanna do that: fine, we can take you now; otherwise you'll end up in the infantry"—"That's a no-brainer; I'm not going in infantry, and I'm not going to be in some tanks and all that crap—No! trumpet!": I ended up in the band school.
JM: I played in a band that was sort of like a soul band; it was called Ira and the Soul Project, and the other saxophonist, Otis Green, was in it. Strangely enough, in 1974, when we were doing this recording I mentioned called Pieces of Light, with John Snyder, we took a break and we went to this little French restaurant that was just down the road from where we were recording. And while we were there, Otis Green, the alto player, came into the place and we saw him and I waved and I said "Otis, what are you doing here?", and he was looking very confused and so on, and he said "You know, I have no idea". He said "I was driving by and I went down the road and suddenly I slammed on the brakes, turned around, and came back here." He said "I've never been in this place before in my life and I don't know why I'm here now." And he said "But, you know what, I was looking for you Joe; I'm going to have to leave"—he worked for IBM—he said "I'm being transferred some place and I was looking for you to see if you would take my place in this band. Would you be willing to do that?" I said "Yeah, okay." So I ended up playing with that band for about five years—Ira and the Soul Project. So that was very strange. It was the end of the CJR recordings, and CJR of course helped to begin the Hat HUT recordings...Ira Frazier was a singer, who sang in sort of the style of Marvin Gaye, and we had a drummer, guitarist, a Hammond B3 player, and myself. We played on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights in a club that was called the Monte Carlo in Poughkeepsie, and before Ira showed up to sing—and people dancing; it was great—there'd be a jam session.
AAJ: Actually, while we're kind of talking about soul and rock and things like that, you know, it's really interesting to think about this aspect of dancing to music, and there's like different ways of enjoying music and things, and I guess over the years your music went in the direction where you wanted things to maybe be a little more subtle. The sort of grooves and everything you might've played at one time might have lost their appeal, but do you ever have a feeling that you might want to recapture that sort of simple, straight-ahead kind of groove?
JM: No, because you can't go home again. I mean that was something that happened at the time. You also noticed that—in the progression and stuff—that in those early things there was a drum—in fact there were two drummers on that, and a bass player, and a groove and a beat, and blah blah blah, and it was music for dancing. Eventually I moved away from—there was no drummer, and no bassist—on the Trinity recording there was no bassist; there's a pianist and drummer, but no bassist, because the two bass players I had decided that we weren't playing real music, and he couldn't be bothered with that because it was threatening his ability to work in other contexts, so he didn't want to do it—"okay, fine, go away; we don't need you". When I played with Raymond Boni, there was no need for a drummer because Raymond is so rhythmic, and there was no need for a bassist too, because he carried all of that; he was an orchestra in itself. And then I found that drummers just got in the way; there are some wonderful drummers, and I've played with some really great ones—Hamid Drake is one, and I've got recordings with him, and so on like that, and that's another thing, but I don't see the need to keep stating the beat and all like that—it just gets in my way; it's for somebody else. And I played with—for example, on this Topology [points to the Topology CD on Hat ART], there's a drummer, but he never plays drums; Pierre Favre is an incredible percussionist and he had a whole stage full of stuff, but he never played drums, you know, he didn't have to state the beat and all that stuff; he just played percussive things and created environments for the music to happen. Music for dancing— people can dance anytime they want to anything I do; you know, if the spirit moves your groove, you get up and dance, but it won't be something that you can forget—you know, like, forget about what's going on because the beat will always be there and locked in— no, the beat's in your heart, so find it. That's what it's all about.
AAJ: Actually, when you play with Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen, they're definitely not stating the beat; it really feels like you're equal partners, and you know, not worrying about any sort of background/foreground...
JM:No, that's true—that's exactly it. And in fact if Jay wants to play something that has a beat and wants to lock in on that, that's fine; we can deal with that; I mean that's a part of all what's going on, and it's all material to be used in the whole process, and that's fine; I don't have a problem with that.
AAJ: These two records [In the Spirit and No Greater Love] are really self-explanatory; from the first note it connects you with something that is more familiar than a lot of the other music that you play; it connects you with like sort of the larger community that you live in, where you have a lot of people who may not have an interest in the more exploratory music you do, but these harmonies, these tunes that...
JM:Well, some of the melodies that are familiar would catch your attention; for example, we play a Monk tune or something like that, people say "oh yeah", you know, there are people who just collect Monk tunes, who don't care what it sounds like, just collect them and stuff like that. Well, this, melodically—it was a quieter way of playing; it was an area of music that—ballads and blues and stuff like that—I love playing ballads. If you're a so-called Free musician or Free Jazz musician, you don't very often hear a lot of modulation; things are usually at a certain level, a certain tempo, a certain whatever— perception of whatever speed is about, and playing 8 billion notes and so on like that, but you can't hide in these things; you cannot hide in a ballad; either you can play or you can't, you know, and things at slower and that are melodic, and a lot of blats and bleeps and all like this are considered to be very modern and very in, and very chic or whatever, but it's only a part of what the whole spectrum of the music thing is as far as I'm concerned, and if you're playing melodically, some people would be ready to just as well dismiss you as if you're playing the other stuff. But if it makes you feel something; it moves from one place; you've gotta feel something; you cannot be indifferent to it, you know; it makes you feel something, then that's fine. And if people say "oh well, we lost you know because you did that", too bad; I don't know what I'm going to do next time.
The Bluette [Mcphee, Joe Giardullo, Dominic Duval, Michael Bisio] played at the Vision Festival in May—music's totally different—very very energized and so on—the same people, but we'd just come off a tour, this Albert Ayler project tour in France, so Michael and Dominic had bonded; they had locked up, so it was really great, and Joe [Giardullo] was just leaving that evening to go to Poland, with some friends over there, so he was up and so on like that, and I think it's interesting. Also, the fact that Joe plays flutes; I think his flute playing is extraordinary, and that gives another dimension to this music. In fact, Bob Rusch was not terribly enamored of the flute, and made some disparaging remarks [chuckling]; for example, he made this joke—he said "you know the definition of a hole- in-one?"—he said this to Joe—he said "no, whaddya mean, a hole-in-one?"—cause Joe's a golfer—he said "what's your definition?'—he said "it's when you take the flute and throw it in the toilet and it never hits the other sides." [much laughter] "Whoa! What?" Not only that, when I said Joe Giardullo's on the recording session, he said "Uh, what does he play?". I said "flute." First time I invited Joe to come to CIMP was the first recording with Evan Parker and Evan's trio and so on like that; I was invited and there was only a few people invited and there was just gonna be guests, and Bob said "bring an instrument; maybe you can play or something", and I said "yeah, and I'd also like to bring my friend Joe Giardullo", and he says [with immediacy] "nope, can't bring him"—"uh, okay, I won't bring him". [laughter] So then I said "Joe's on this"—"What does he play?" "Flute." "No, no flutes; I'm not interested in flutes, so it came to do it and he said "what's the instrumentation?"; I said "two basses—Michael Bisio, Dominic Duval, Joe Giardullo, and me"—"Giardullo—what's he gonna do?"—"He's gonna play"—"ahh, I don't know about that"—"he's playing, okay—he's ON THE GIG! [laughter]. And he said, "so, fine", and we joked and carried on—he likes Joe—it's fine; he makes no more disparaging remarks about the flute, except, you know, he's a pain-in-the-ass sometime and he just wants to needle you [laughing].
AAJ: [following a brief discussion about dance together with music] I've recently become really attuned to that side of music I think after watching certain musicians that seem to have this element of dance as sort of an inherent part of what they're doing, and I'm thinking in particular of Barre Phillips and also Toshi Makihara—it seems like there's really an incredible crossover between the music and the dance, and there's an elegance in the movements. Are there any musicians that you've experienced that with yourself?
JM: Cecil Taylor. He's very much into dance and movement and so on. But then, you know, he's interested in, I think, that element which combines or brings together the architectural thing and the music, and these forms and moves and shapes and so forth that dance presents, I think is like architecture in motion as far as I'm concerned.
AAJ: Architecture in motion—hmm, that's nice; I like that. I was actually thinking about sculpture in motion when I was seeing Toshi's solo performance the other day, where he was exploring all the different things you could do with those basic pieces of metal and things, you know—taking them apart and moving them around.
JM: There's a reference in that "Eroc Tinu" [poem written by Joe that appears in Intervals: the Poems and Words of Musicians, edited by Hershel Silverman and Steve Dalachinsky] to dancers, but the reference is to deep sea dancers, and there I'm referring to the middle passage and slaves being thrown off the ship and that sort of thing. But there's another poem—I don't know if it's in there—called "Tree Dancing", and "Tree Dancing" is a little poem about something I observed one time as a storm was approaching. I was sitting on a porch at a friend's house. Across the field, you don't see the wind but you can see the effects of the wind through the trees. And there were these tall trees that looked like the long legs of dancers, and as the wind came through, it was like these fingers that came through and began to move, and they started to move like that and sway, and as the wind became more violent they moved back and forth and they looked like these dancers with incredibly wonderfully choreographed movement, so my poem was because—as it was also becoming night, and there was a full moon—it goes like this:
when the moon is high
and the air is a fresh light green,
AAJ: [echoing] They do.
JM: Trees dance.
AAJ: That's beautiful. Thanks.
Actually, talk about poetry and dance—what about the visual arts? I'm quite curious to hear what you think about that.
JM: Well, I've always been influenced by painters and so on. Craig Johnson, who started CJR records—he was a painter—he is a painter—he lives out in Seattle now, and a very friend close of mine, Alton Pickens, who taught at Vassar College in the Art Department there—he passed away in 1991—he was a marvelous painter, and some of his pieces are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And a couple years ago, I did a program dedicated to him, sort of celebrating his life and his art, at a place called Merkin Hall in New York, and I had what's called my "wind and string ensemble"— Dominic Duval, a cellist named Monica Wilson, Rosie Hertlein on violin—Dominic played an instrument called a Hutchins bass, which is on Dream Book, and Joe [Giardullo], and we played music in which there was no written parts, only prints of Alton's work, and descriptions of his work that I gave, because he lived at my house, actually, for maybe 8 or 9 years. He had an accident and fell down some stairs and became sort of paralyzed, lost his memory, had this amnesia and so like that, and I sort of looked after him—that was another reason why I didn't do any recording for a long time. And around the time that happened, my mother was very ill with terminal cancer, and I was looking after him at his place—his apartment and so forth—and running home—I was also working at a factory at the same time. So it became very difficult—life became very difficult, and Alton was living in a place where his landlord wanted to turn his place into some commercial space or something, and it became so difficult I just moved him in to live with me, and so my mother died and so on like that, and to help him kind of regain his memory and get back to—because he had a studio and he got back eventually to working in his studio and painting and so on. We had many conversations about art and about philosophy—he was an extraordinary person, and, in fact, when I went to Europe the first time, we stopped in this little bar to have a beer and he said "Well, what are you going to do in Europe?', and I said "Well, I'm going with a synthesizer", and he said "What's that?". I said "It's an electronic instrument; it has these wonderful possibilities", and he looked at me and he became more and more agitated, and he said "Well, what does it do?". I said "Well, it can do this and it can do that and so on", and he was furious; he stormed out an went back to his studio, and he said "When it can make some music, you come back here and tell me something, but possibilities—don't tell me about possibilities", and he put on a Pablo Cassals recording of Bach cello suites from 1939—it's an amazing recording, and we sat and listened to that and so on, and he said "Now, play something for me", so I put on an Albert Ayler recording with "The Truth is Marching In"—he loved it; he said "Now that's music—you do that". So that's why I told you when I went to France and we ended our tour and went to the American Center, I played "The Truth is Marching In" because it was at his place. That's how that's connected.
JM: But I also like cooking, because for me it's the same process. But then you deal with taste, and this also involves improvisation, because I can take basic ideas in various cultures and various cuisines and so on like that, and I try to remember what it was I tasted and what went into it and try to approximate it and then to move away from or come closer to it, and so I'm a very good cook—and then I can give it to people and it's like a concert.
AAJ: In what capacity did you work at Hat HUT?
JM: From 1981 to 1985 I was a vice-president of Hat HUT records, whatever that means, in charge of promotion and marketing. And we established a branch of the company in West Park, New York and I worked in the office there. And I was supposed to be a liaison between the musicians and the company, in addition to the promotion and marketing and stuff. And I had a lot of hope that I could effect some kind of real, meaningful connection between the company and the musicians, but it didn't work out that way, and in terms of distribution and sales of recordings, it didn't help very much either, because radio didn't work, distribution was abysmal, and, you know, jazz is a small part of the whole spectrum of the music industry and the particular genre that we're involved with is even more infinitesimal part of that. No matter what I did I couldn't effect anything. And then I found that the worst part of it was I played a lot less—almost didn't play at all. It was an interesting experiment.
AAJ: Going back to something sort of related to your recent recordings with the Bluette group, there's this topic of religious music, and it seems that throughout all human history and all human cultures, music has always been intimately connected with people's religious practices, and especially in America, and especially with the jazz tradition there's a very large connection between certain religious communities and certain musical communities, and I was wondering, you know, if you fit into this pattern yourself.
JM: Not really; I think it's more about spirituality than religion, and in that sense, I think it's tied and it's about spirituality in the community of people, humanity, more than religion—religion doesn't interest me—formalized religion and stuff like that, but in terms of jazz, most particularly coming out of a Black culture, where the church is a very important part of it. For me personally in particular, I didn't come from—I came from a family that are immigrants to the United States—my parents came from the Bahamas— I'm the first of my family born in the United States—and they came from an English background with an Episcopal church, as opposed to the Baptist church—didn't hear a whole lot of Blues and so on—the music I listened to was from the Caribbean and so on, so most of the music I got in terms of jazz was through my friends when I was a teenager and stuff like that. My father liked jazz and he played—he met Dizzy Gillespie once, and I have my mother's uncle—Alfonso Cooper was the leader of the group called the Savoy Sultans, which was a very famous band in a period which was between sort of Count Basie kind of things and so on—it was called a jump band...