Joe McPhee Interview
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?