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Joe McPhee Interview

By Published: June 16, 2005

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.

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