Learn How

We need your help in 2018

Support All About Jazz All About Jazz is looking for 1,000 backers to help fund our 2018 projects that directly support jazz. You can make this happen by purchasing ad space or by making a donation to our fund drive. In addition to completing every project (listed here), we'll also hide all Google ads and present exclusive content for a full year!

109

Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

Sign in to view read count
AAJ: You once called your music "Po music." Can you describe it?

JM: I found Dr. Edward De Bono's book on his philosophy with regard to lateral thinking. It's a concept of looking at problems in various ways and trying to find solutions by thinking outside the box, which is a term I don't like, but it works. The term "Po" is a language indicator to show that provocation was being used— that you shouldn't take what is being used as fact, but simply provocation. And the object is to move from a fixed set of ideas in order to discover something new.

Let's say you are driving north, and you come to a big hole in the road, and you have a choice of detours. You can go to the west or you can go to the east, but you have to get around this hole. But that also means that you may have to go north or south to get around it. Well, you know where you want to be, so you do whatever you need to do to get to there. The process of these detours helps you make discoveries, and those discoveries are important. They may not be what you intended, but you can use some of that information, and when you get there, you are so much richer, you've got more to deal with. And so I began to use that concept.

For example, I made a recording of the Sonny Rollins composition "Oleo." I am not a bebop player. I love the music, but it's not my music. It's not from my time. So the recording was definitely not bebop, but something else, and that's what it's all about. It's about moving to another place and examining the possibilities: a Possible, Poetic hypothesis."

AAJ: How do you come up with different foundations in order to improvise from?

JM: Well, I take it a step further. For 10 years, I used the title of "Po music." It would say, "Joe McPhee, Po Music, blah, blah, blah." My ultimate goal was to always have my name be that language indicator. Don't take me for granted. Don't think that what you've heard is what you expect to hear. I have no idea what it's going to be, and you have even less. So when you come, it's going to be whatever it is. Expect the unexpected, that's all I can say.

I like music to move through improvisation, and I improvise when I choose the people I am going to play with, and the rest comes from that. I know somewhat what they are going to do, but sometimes it's me that gets invited to play, and I am the random element. They don't know which Joe McPhee is going to show up. It could be the saxophonist, the trumpet player, the clarinetist, or maybe I'm going to sing; who knows. All that you would know is that whatever is going to happen would be like nothing you else you have ever heard before.

AAJ: Are most people open to that?

JM: Most people? I can't say most. But often they are. [Laughs.]

AAJ: But you can usually tell?

JM: Oh yeah, you can usually tell right away.

AAJ: Do you sometimes purposely head in a different direction?

JM: Sometimes I might, if I feel like stirring up the pot a bit. But I try to keep in mind that it's not about me, and I'm not supposed to be making a mess.

As an example, when playing duets with Peter Brötzmann, I never know what's going to happen, because we never talk about it. We also have a great deal of respect for each other, and he doesn't put me in a box and say that you cannot do this or don't do that. We get on a stage and get it on. This is our time, and we have an opportunity to do something, so let's fucking do it—all bets are off. And I like that; yeah, I do.

I'm an incurable romantic, too. I love ballads. I like sappy ballads and emotional things. It's awful.

Joe McPhee The Damage is DoneAAJ: Your music also always has honesty, integrity and commitment at the heart and root of its foundation. How do you keep that at the core of what you do?

JM: For me, it's like walking naked on the edge of a razor blade. I know who I am, where I am, and I know that my time here is limited. I just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. I trust my senses to tell me if the ground is secure.

AAJ: Despite the many various directions you have taken in music, improvisation always seems to be at the core of it all for you. What is it about improvisation that is so important? Why does it have such a significant place for you?

JM: Improvisation is a fantastic way of extending my childhood. Children are inherently great improvisers until they go to school, where this ability is taught out of them so that they can conform and fit in.

Pauline Oliveros taught me a lot through her philosophy of "Deep Listening," listening with the complete self. Listening is extremely important to improvisation, and in group contexts even more so, if that's possible. She maintains that we listen in order to hear, we hear in order to interpret the world around us, and that babies are the best listeners.

Improvisation allows me to process everything that I've learned over my lifetime, in real time, to come up with new ideas in the moment. It is a process which happens so fast that it is beyond thought. In fact, thought slows things down. It's even more amazing when this happens within a group context. A word of caution is in order, however. Knowing where to start is easy, but, as Ned Rorem said, knowing when to stop is not.

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity Interview Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity
by Paul Rauch
Published: December 8, 2017
Read Aaron Goldberg: Exploring the Now Interview Aaron Goldberg: Exploring the Now
by Luke Seabright
Published: November 24, 2017
Read Pat Metheny: Driving Forces Interview Pat Metheny: Driving Forces
by Ian Patterson
Published: November 10, 2017
Read Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention Interview Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention
by Paul Rauch
Published: November 9, 2017
Read Tomas Fujiwara: The More the Better Interview Tomas Fujiwara: The More the Better
by Troy Dostert
Published: November 6, 2017
Read "Fred Anderson: On the Run" Interview Fred Anderson: On the Run
by Lazaro Vega
Published: April 23, 2017
Read "Walter Smith III: Jazz Explorer" Interview Walter Smith III: Jazz Explorer
by R.J. DeLuke
Published: April 19, 2017
Read "Eric Ineke: Surveying the European Jazz Scene" Interview Eric Ineke: Surveying the European Jazz Scene
by Victor L. Schermer
Published: September 6, 2017
Read "D'Vonne Lewis: It's About the Love" Interview D'Vonne Lewis: It's About the Love
by Paul Rauch
Published: December 22, 2016
Read "Lew Tabackin: A Life in Jazz" Interview Lew Tabackin: A Life in Jazz
by Rob Rosenblum
Published: April 6, 2017

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!