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Joe McPhee And The (Trio) X Factor

By Published: March 3, 2007
2007 marks the 40th anniversary of a major event in jazz, the passing of John Coltrane. It also marks another event that may escape most people, a birth of sorts: the recording debut of multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, as a sideman on Clifford Thornton's Freedom And Unity, recorded the day after Coltrane's funeral. Those 48 hours were a watershed period in McPhee's life.

McPhee grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY. At 8, his father, who played trumpet on the side, called him in from playing in the streets and presented him with a trumpet. He told him it was time to play. "I much preferred to be playing in the street. But that was the beginning of it. He was a very good trumpet player, a first chair trumpet player. He was a big Louis Armstrong fan. In fact, he even looked like Louis Armstrong. I played trumpet all through high school but then I didn't want to play anymore. I got tired of playing in marching bands and all that sort of thing. I wanted to study electronic technology in college. But then I got drafted. When presented with the option of playing in the Army band or going into the infantry, "That was a no brainer. That was how I ended up in Germany in the Army Band. But it turned out OK. Playing everyday and learning theory and that stuff, it was a great experience.

Back in the US in 1965, McPhee lived in Poughkeepsie but spent a lot of time in New York. He immersed himself in the then-evolving new jazz. He struck up a partnership with Thornton. One day he was alone at his loft on Barrow Street. "I was in the apartment practicing and there was a knock on the door. I opened it and there was Ornette with this trumpet. [He had a loft in the same building.] I think it was a Bach Stradivarius trumpet, if I remember correctly. And he said, 'I heard you playing. Why don't you try this one?' "I couldn't believe it! Ornette Coleman was handing me this trumpet? And I hadn't even met him before! He said, 'When you're finished with it, just put it back.' That kind of encouragement convinced McPhee to pursue his direction.

A short while later, Coleman's generosity manifested itself again with McPhee. "Coltrane had died. I ran into Ornette at Clifford's apartment and he said, 'Are you going to go to the funeral?' I said, 'I don't have any clothes. I don't look presentable.' Ornette said, 'That doesn't matter. Come on.' Coleman and Ayler played at the funeral. "After the funeral Ornette came up to me again and said, 'We're going out to Long Island for the burial, do you want to come with us?' "He, Billy Higgins, Harold Avent [Thornton's drummer] and I piled into the car. In the process, we got stuck in heavy traffic, so when we got there, the ceremony at the gravesite was over but there was a tent over the grave. Seeing Ornette alone standing over Coltrane's grave's hard to was a very moving experience. The next day, McPhee entered the studio with Clifford Thornton and his recording career began.

But by 1968, McPhee was feeling the trumpet wasn't the full extent of his range. He was hearing other voices in his head. "I was buying all these records by Coltrane, Ayler and Coleman. And they were all saxophonists. And I thought these were the players who were doing the real new music. So I thought, well, I'll try the saxophone. The transition was not easy.

"In the beginning with the saxophone, it was a question of building embouchure muscles and learning the technical aspects of the instrument. The dichotomy between playing the two instruments is always a struggle. "It's constant adjustment. In my opinion, the brass instruments are much more demanding in terms of muscular stamina because the sound is made by the physical vibration of the lips. I do some pretty extreme extended technical things which would never make me a candidate for a symphony chair but which informs my personal identity on the horns. It's a very destructive process, with bits and pieces of your body actually flying through the instrument along with the notes and sounds.

When he first played the saxophone in public with some musicians with whom he normally played, they told him not to bring the saxophone with him the next time he came. Ironically, these were the same musicians who played with McPhee a year later on Underground Railroad, his debut album.

It was around 1966 that McPhee met painter Craig Johnson. "Craig Johnson lived across the river from me in West Park and he worked at Holy Cross Monastery. He used to come and listen to us play music in this little bar we played at. We'd get into conversations about music from time to time and over drinks. He said 'Why don't we make a record?' Johnson had never done anything like that before. By the time Johnson had bought recording equipment, McPhee had made the leap to saxophone and the stage was set for his debut recording.

Between 1969 and 1974 Johnson released four McPhee LPs on the CjR label. They had print runs of anywhere from 500 (Underground Railroad) to 1,500 (Nation Time) copies. Not huge pressings but they made a stir. One person who heard them was Swiss businessman, Werner Uehlinger. When he was in the US on a business trip, he went to visit McPhee and Johnson. "He came over to Craig's house and we had dinner and played him some music. He liked it and, although he didn't have a label at the time, said he'd like to release it. It eventually came out as Black Magic Man and it was the first release on hatHUT Records. The label eventually became one of the main sources for creative improvised music over the next two decades and it was the main outlet for McPhee's music throughout the '70s and '80s.

McPhee's output slowed down a bit toward the end of the '80s and early '90s, in order to care for his elderly parents. By 1995, he was back at full steam. Reissues of the CjR recordings (on Atavistic) were influential to a whole new generation of players. He made a number of recordings for the Cadence/CIMP combine, which heralded a new phase with new partnerships. Most important of these was the formation of Trio X with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen.

Over the course of eight albums, these three master musicians have formed a partnership that shapes the jazz tradition (which also includes the innovations of the '60s) into their unique freewheeling approach. While some of the source material may be jazz and pop standards, the handling of it is not. Bassist Dominic Duval: "We make an honest attempt to make music that means something to us. McPhee puts it another way, "We purposely don't rehearse. When somebody wants to introduce new material, we just start it. We all have a pretty vast knowledge of the jazz literature and we can just pick and choose stuff. We destroy everything we play anyways. (laughs) But we also have a great deal of respect for that music. Another reason the music works so well is that we have such a good time together. This bonhomie is especially evident on the soon-to-be-released DVD The Train And The River: A Musical Odyssey (CIMP), recorded in Lithuania. "When we arrived in Vilnius, someone said there was a journalist and would we mind doing an interview. And we said fine. So he asked a series of questions and we answered the questions and he made this video. When it came back and we saw it, after it had been edited, we said, 'This is very beautiful' and wanted to release it.

McPhee will be playing two sets at The Stone on Mar. 27th. "The date was curated by pianist Matthew Shipp. He offered me an evening at the Stone, however I wanted to do it. I thought I'd like to have two separate concepts that evening: one, a set with [guitarist and mandolinist] Clifton Hyde and the other would be Trio X with guests. The guests are violinists Rosi Hertlein (who performed with Trio X on Rapture) and David Prentice, whose association with McPhee goes back almost 25 years. "I'm calling it "S.E.X. And Violins. S.E.X. is an acronym standing for Special Edition X.

It's McPhee's willingness to collaborate with these younger musicians that is a hallmark of his aesthetic. But he doesn't consider himself a mentor. "I'm trying to learn something. I try to keep it as open as possible just to keep things fresh. There's an awful lot I can learn from them. I look for somebody I can have a conversation with, someone I can share ideas with. It's not about me being a leader, it's about what we can put together.

"Ironically, the concert is the day of my father's birthday. When I took up the saxophone he told me if I carried on with this saxophone thing, 'you'll be a jack of all trades and a master of none!' My dad was my first and greatest inspiration. He taught me an attitude and discipline about music. I thought what he said was pretty accurate. But I was determined to do what people told me I couldn't or shouldn't do.

Recommended Listening:

· Joe McPhee—Survival Unit II: At WBAI's Free Music Store (hatART, 1971)

· Joe McPhee—Graphics, Vol.1 & 2 (hatHUT, 1977)

· Joe McPhee—Visitation (with Bill Smith Ensemble)

(Sackville-Boxholder, 1983)

· Trio X—Rapture (Cadence Jazz, 1998)

· Joe McPhee/Joe Giardullo/Mike Bisio/Tani Tabbal Shadow & Light (Drimala, 2001)

· Joe McPhee/Matthew Shipp/Dominic Duval—In Finland (Cadence Jazz, 2004)

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