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Joe McPhee Interview

By Published: June 16, 2005

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].

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