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A Fireside Chat with Joe McPhee

AAJ Staff By

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I like to think of myself as a muse-ician, somebody who makes magic with the muses.
Labels are difficult to overcome. Perceptions are even more daunting. And Joe McPhee is often burdened with both: the labels of 'free jazz' or 'avant-garde' and the perception that his music is conceptual or theoretical (the same also holds true for the music of Anthony Braxton). But McPhee plays neither and his music is hardly highbrow (e.g., Underground Railroad). It is however, deep (but let's not mistake deep for complexity). Joe McPhee is a 'the,' not an 'a.' He is the Joe McPhee, not a multi-instrumentalist. And he is unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Your documentation during the Sixties was politically poignant and reflective of the racially tumultuous times.

JOE MCPHEE: The recording with Clifford (Thornton), of course, he was the leader and he set the tone and direction for that (Freedom and Unity). It was recorded the day after John Coltrane's funeral in 1967 and we were all caught up in the emotion of that. As for as my own work was concerned, when I had the opportunity to record on the CJR label, it seemed absolutely essential to me that I try to dedicate the music to people who had inspired me, people who had inspired consciousness, to honor certain people. For example, Harriet Tubman was honored on the recording Underground Railroad. Also, very importantly, there is a piece called 'Message from Denmark,' which is not related to the country, but Denmark Vesey, who was a slave revolutionary and not one to turn the other cheek, but take action to change things. That was in '67. Newark was on fire and there were all kinds of things going on. Nation Time comes out of something I had heard from Amiri Baraka. The sentiments were important. They were then and they still are now. I later didn't entirely focus on the situation as an African-American, but instead tried to broaden it into more of a human awareness and human rights. From the very beginning and even to now, I've included references to the human condition in the music that I've done. I'm as happy of that body of work today as I was then.

FJ: What are the theories behind Pauline Oliveros' deep listening?

JM: For those who don't know, Pauline Oliveros is a marvelous composer, teacher, philosopher, and accordionist. She holds black belts in karate. She is one of the most extraordinary people over the last two centuries. I came into contact with her in 1981 when I was invited to perform in San Francisco. I was having some problems. I had dropped my tenor saxophone in the airport and it had to be repaired. I was pretty shaken and upset about all that at the time and Pauline came over and introduced herself and she was one of the people who helped calm me down and get me through that whole thing. She wanted to get together when we got back and we did and she has been a pioneer in creative music for more than fifty years now. Her concept of deep listening is about listening with the whole being, the whole self. It's about complete musicianship and improvisation. It is one thing to listen. A lot of people listen. Very few people hear. It is about learning how to hear and reach the child inside you. I just find her just absolutely inspirational, being in her presence, her teaching methods, her meditation methods, all have been very helpful to me. She is always at the forefront of the electronic revolution. She is a big fan of Star Trek and that sort of science fiction stuff, as am I.

FJ: You are a multi-instrumentalist, not unlike Ornette Coleman or the various persons associated with the AACM.

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