Taking the Wrong Way Home: An Interview with Joe McPhee

By Walt Davis

Walt Davis: For those who aren’t familiar with you and your music, can you give us a little bit of your background and musical history? How did you get started playing improv and who were your early inspirations? What have been some of your more memorable musical moments?

Joe McPhee: I started playing trumpet at age 8 years. My dad was a trumpet player and fortunately I had a good teacher from the beginning. Although my father was not a jazz player he was a big fan of the music and Alfonso Cooper, leader of the Savoy Sultans, was my mother’s uncle. So, there was that influence. My interest in jazz came through friends, as a listener more so than a player. I didn’t attempt to do any improvising until i was about 22 years old. Sadly, in the school bands, improvisation was not only frowned upon, it was actively discouraged or forbidden. Later, I played in an army band and while the training was excellent, the same attitude prevailed. It was with fellow musicians in the army band that I began to seriously investigate the process of improvisation.

Two of my earliest inspirations were Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, specifically the recordings BAGS GROOVE and PITHECANTHROPUS ERECTUS. After that came concentrated listening to Horace Silver, The Messengers, Cannonball Adderly, etc. Exploding out of that came John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman. Exploding still out of that at an ever increasing velocity, came Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, and Albert Ayler, just to name a few. This family tree was amazing!

One of the most memorable moments of my life will have to be the funeral of John Coltrane. As sad as his passing was, the funeral was a glorious affirmation of all that he was and that he gave to us...it was a celebration of life. Musical selections were performed by Ornette’s classic trio of the Golden Circle period and Albert Ayler’s band. This experience informs my work to this day.

WD: You developed a conceptual approach to improvisation that you call "PO Music", based on the work of Dr. Edward de Bono. Could you briefly highlight some of Dr. de Bono’s ideas and explain the Po Music concept?

JM: Dr. De Bono’s concept comes from words like positive, possible, poetic, hypothesis. It involves a kind of lateral thinking in which things are viewed in a positive/possible sense rather than a literal sense. Things may not necessarily be what they appear. De Bono explains, for example, that cars should have square wheels. Obviously a car with square wheels probably wouldn’t get very far, but further examination of the idea in a positive way might help develop better brakes. Sometimes you might have to travel south, when your objective lies to the north. For example you come to a river and the bridge is out making it necessary to travel in the opposite direction. A negative approach (No) would leave you at the river...a positive approach might cause you to go in "wrong" direction.

Just keep in mind your objective and everything will be cool. This is the concept I apply to my work. PO is just a language indicator to show that the process of provocation is taking place. I hope my name (Joe McPhee) and PO will amount to the same thing.

Michael Bisio WD: When we had a chance to talk on the phone, you mentioned how robust the European scene was compared to the US. Recently, DD Jackson even referred to Europe as today’s "gutbucket circuit" for jazz musicians. What do you see as the differences between European and American Jazz audiences? Any ideas about how to build a stronger base for creative improvised music in the US? Among other things, could you comment on the recent Empty Bottle Fest in Chicago, which I believe you said reminded you of Europe?

JM: The major difference between the US and European audiences is in education, but this is breaking down. We tend to hold the arts in contempt where as in Europe there seems to be a better understanding of its value to culture and humanity. We are a pop culture more guided by style than substance. Art is video clips and mirrors and the rest of the world wants to be like us. What I see that is very encouraging, is that young people in every quarter (not unlike yourselves) are saying "enough." We are not a bunch of sheep and we don’t want our MTV. The revisionist, neo-traditionalist have had their say; have had their day. The Empty Bottle Festival in Chicago is an example of that. It was bold, adventurous...it was great! This music...call it jazz or whatever, is a living thing, not museum music...it needs to take risks in order to adapt and survive.

WD: One of the things AIM hopes to be a part of is building a local improv scene. There seems to be a number of area musicians currently interested in moving towards more improvisation. (OK, maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part:-). Do you have any advice for improv musicians just starting out?

JM: To quote a title of one of Cecil Taylor’s recordings, " IT IS IN THE BREWING, LUMINOUS." Just do it...make mistakes...there are no bad notes!

WD: I know you’ve done a lot of work with Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band. How did that association come about? What has working with them been like and/or what has it added to your own musical conception? Are there connections between the "Deep Listening" approach and "PO Music"?

JM: I first met Pauline Oliveros in 1981, at the New Music America Festival in San Francisco. She introduced herself and we became friends immediately. If anything like a "Wonderwoman" exists, it is Pauline. I have seldom met anyone with the energy, vision and courage that she possesses...she is a role model for me. Working with Pauline and the Deep Listening Band is an improviser’s dream come true...marvelous people; extraordinary music. Actually I began collaborations with Stuart Dempster around 1978, in Seattle.

Since I began my PO MUSIC series back in 1981, I have moved more and more in the direction of totally improvised music. I am very interested in form and structure as well as chaos theory and accidents. So I find I have much in common with the philosophy of Pauline and the DLB. And yes, working with the DLB has encouraged and inspired me.

Joe McPhee WD: And I also know that you’ve kept together a trio with Raymond Boni and Andre Jaume for over 10 years now. Do you still perform together? What was it that attracted the three of you to each other? How have you managed to pull off the impossible feat in jazz today of keeping together a regular working group? How has the trio’s music changed over the years?

JM: Our last performance together was in 1991, for the recording of IMPRESSIONS OF JIMMY GIUFFRE, for Andre’s CELP Label. I have since played with Andre and Raymond on seperate project and our relationship is stronger than ever. I just played with Raymond in April and I will play with Andre in early August, in the South of France. However, we have each been involved with separate projects over the last years...keeping a working group together in todays economic climate is impossible. Our music has changed as we have changed. It has become more sure...More free.

WD: Ending it up with one of those traditional questions: other than your own, what music (books, art, etc.) have you been into lately? And what do you have planned for the near future?

JM: A book I’m reading was given to me by a friend from Greece, pianist Sakis Papadimitriou. The title is Road to Rembetika, by Gail Holst. It is about the music of a Greek sub-culture..songs of love, sorrow and hashish. It parallels American blues in that it is about a group of people who felt themselves outside the mainstream of society, who developed their own slang and forms of expression.

What do I have planned for the future? A new solo CD coming this fall titled As Serious as Your Life. The title comes from Valerie Wilmer’s book by the same name and is dedicated to her and Guitar Shorty, a bluesman. Shorty is kind of a hero for me in the manner of Coltrane and Ornette. Of him it is said "...that Guitar Shorty, he don’t play nothin’ right."

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