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A Fireside Chat with Joe McPhee

By Published: November 18, 2003

JM: To touch on briefly what you were saying about the AACM and Roscoe Mitchell and Ornette, they have all been very important parts of my development and inspiration in terms of the direction with these various instruments. I began playing trumpet. My father was a trumpet player and he started me when I was about eight years old. He was a strict disciplinarian and was certain you should stick with one instrument and really develop that as fully as you could. I agreed and went along with that. After a while, there is a bit of trying to develop your own identity and I kept hearing the saxophone, especially after I heard Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, a whole range of people had influenced me, but it was the sound of Albert Ayler that absolutely grabbed me. I borrowed a tenor from a friend one day and went into a club where I had been playing trumpet and just started to blow. I was told not to come back with that instrument again because it was threatening to the jobs of the people that were there. So for a year, I got a method book and learned how to play the saxophone from that and listening to a lot of music. Then I began to incorporate the reed instruments with the brass. I saw Don Cherry in 1963 when he was playing with Sonny Rollins. I saw him at Birdland. I was in the army and I had a weekend pass to New York. I found the music of Don Cherry and that led me to playing the pocket trumpet. Eventually, through gifts sometimes, my alto clarinet was a gift, I learned how to play that. I incorporated that into various things that I do. I use guitar effects, pedals and stuff, things I learned from Pauline and I try to incorporate that. That is how it sort of came about. I am still fooling around with little instruments and little electronic things to this day.

FJ: A person's legacy is generally equated with the amount of time he or she is on earth. Ayler, although he played publicly for less than a decade, influenced a generation of musicians.

JM: He was very significant for me and I try in my work to maintain my own identity, but also to touch, not only on the legacy, on what I know of it and what it means to me by trying to infuse the emotion, the intelligence, and the beauty of that music and try to pass it on and in a way, keep Albert alive.

FJ: What is Po Music?

JM: It comes from an ancient symbol that looks like a horse's head backwards. It also comes from the work of Dr. Edward de Bono. I had read a book in 1981 about lateral thinking and it intrigued me as just a way of finding a method to get past my own clich's and discover new ideas out of things that were already there. I use it as an indicator that provocation is taking place. I used to use Po Music, to show that what you're hearing is not necessarily what it is. For example, I would play some music out of the bebop tradition. I did on a recording called Oleo. We played a Sonny Rollins piece, but I am not a bebop player. That's a life and a tradition I highly respect, but I don't consider myself a bebop player. If we play this Sonny Rollins composition, we play it in our own style and try to move it to another place and find life in it as we see it.

FJ: How do you see yourself?

JM: I am co-opting a term that I heard fairly recently. I like to think of myself as a muse-ician, somebody who makes magic with the muses. I am a musician and I hope I can stay healthy and play some good music. That's all. It is no more complicated than that.

FJ: And you are continuing your work with Trio X: Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen?

JM: First, there is a misconception that it is my band. It's not. It is a cooperative with Dominic Duval on bass and Jay Rosen on percussion. What happened was in 1997, I was invited to play at a John Coltrane birthday celebration at the Knitting Factory. Earlier that year, I got a telephone call from Dominic Duval, who I didn't know and he said that he wanted to play with me. I thought, 'Why would he want to play with me? I don't even have a band.' I played more in Europe at that point than I had ever had in the United States. When this opportunity came to play in this Coltrane celebration, I called Dominic and another good friend here, who has been my alter ego, Joe Giardullo, a saxophone, reed player and put this band together. In fact, when I arrived at the Knitting Factory, I had only seen Dominic photographed in the newspaper when he was playing with Cecil Taylor. That was the first performance. The next one was 1998 at the Vision Festival. We didn't have a name and after the concert, we did a recording at CIMP the next day and we still didn't have a name. After our concert at the Vision Festival, no one wrote about us. We were dismissed I guess. We just took the name Trio X and that is the legend of Trio X.

FJ: Joe Giardullo is in your Bluette with Duval and Michael Bisio.

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