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Joe McPhee: Artistic Sacrifice from a Musical Prophet

Lloyd N. Peterson Jr. By

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AAJ: You are also sensitive and passionate about everything that you get involved with. Can you explain where your sensitivity and passion is from?

JM: The joy of sex! Ann Landers once offered this advice in her newspaper column: "Sex is a gift from God. Don't give it back unused!"

AAJ: Some might say that one of the areas that separate creative artists from good musicians is that musicians are interested in the answers, but artists are more interested in the questions, in the search itself. Can you describe this artistic search and how important is it to your creative process or, perhaps, even to who you are as an artist?

JM: My dad was a trumpet player, and he taught me to play trumpet at the age of 8. He believed in the importance of concentration: to focus on the trumpet and master the instrument. But I was more interested in the story and in developing a narrative. So when I picked up the saxophone, he suggested that I would become a "jack of all trades and a master of none." I understood his concern, but I also knew that none of the musicians in our local philharmonic orchestra looked like me, so why not try something else. I also didn't take his advice as something negative but rather as a challenge. I had heard Albert Ayler, Coltrane and Ornette, and that was something else, and my eyes and ears were open. I was then, and I am still, a work in progress, just as freedom is.

AAJ: Many of the artists that are doing the most creative work also seem to have unique awareness levels and sensitivity. Your playing reflects this. Do the events happening in the world today affect you and your own creative process?

JM: They have always informed my work, and are reflected in the titles, dedications, concepts and compositions to this day.

AAJ: Leonard Bernstein said the following: "This will be our response to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, and more devotedly than ever before." Does that resonate with you?

JM: Yes. After the 9/11 attacks, I participated in performances in New York initiated by Patricia Parker, to help promote the healing process. It was very intense, very passionate and very beautiful, and I personally hoped for a positive wake-up call through the arts. But memory fades the further we move from the events. And I was probably too much a dreamer, too much an idealist. But then again, I prefer to be proactive and hope that what I do or say might generate positive thought and action.

AAJ: Conflict and turmoil continues to confront our very own survival. Does music have the power and harmony to be the language of peace between all people and societies, so all can live in peaceful coexistence?

JM: Here is a better answer than one I could think of. The phrase was coined by William Congreve, in "The Mourning Bride," 1697:

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,

And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,

By Magick Numbers and persuasive Sound.

What then am I? Am I more senseless grown

Than Trees, or Flint? O force of constant Woe!

'Tis not in Harmony to calm my Griefs.

Anselmo sleeps, and is at Peace; last Night

The silent Tomb receiv'd the good Old King;

He and his Sorrows now are safely lodg'd

Within its cold, but hospitable Bosom.

Why am not I at Peace?

AAJ: What is beauty to you?

JM: For me, beauty is one of those things which require a kind of peripheral vision. Looking at it directly might be akin to looking directly at the sun. Do it at your own peril. Trust your heart. It is an intuitive knowledge. No one has to tell us a sunset is beautiful, or a flower or a bird song.

AAJ: Where do you get your sense of humility from?

JM: Mostly from my parents and grandparents. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and I know it. It's like the Zen kind of thing as well, like the story of the centipede. "If it took the time to consider what foot came before which, it would have not ended up walking but rather constricted in a ditch."

I do things that I'm not supposed to do. The only thing that I cannot do right now is fly straight up. I play anything that I want, I do anything that I want—not out of arrogance but because I believe you are only limited by your imagination.

I hear people say, "You sold out, you copped out, and you are playing with a rock band."

Well I say, "Fuck you, I'll play whatever I want; I do whatever the hell I want to do. You want to say that to me?" Cato Salsa is a rock band from Norway. The Thing [the name comes from a Don Cherry composition] is a band of young musicians who came out of punk rock and avant-garde jazz. They joined forces, invited me for a tour in Norway in mostly rock venues, and we had a great time while discovering an entirely new audience who also discovered music that they had never heard before. I enjoy the newness of now, and why not!

LP Why are you so reluctant about doing interviews?

JM I am apprehensive about doing interviews because, first of all, I don't think I am that important. In the scheme of things, there are people that are much more important and interesting than me. I live in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is a place that most people cannot even pronounce. I am rarely invited to play there, and few people know who I am or what I do.

LP Last thoughts?

JM I am incredibly lucky to have come in contact with so many marvelous people in my travels, who have not only inspired me but are lifelong friends. I mean, I just stand on their shoulders and say, "I like the view here." I try things that are impossible because I don't know what I can't do. I have never known what I can't do, and I don't know what my limits are. And, as I said earlier, one day I would like to fly straight up. I would like to defy the law of gravity, whatever that is, and fly straight up like one of my comic book superheroes. I'm working on it!

"Echoes of Memory"

A thin sliver of moon

Gently piercing the horizon

Releases morning

From the frozen clutches

of a winter's night

A lone centurion star

Engages the sun

In a futile attempt

To hold back the dawn

Steam rising from your breath

In the frigid air

Turns the glare of artificial light

Into shards of crystalline memory fragments

Momentarily obscuring

Your face


Ever so carefully

I collect each fragment

And store them in my heart

They keep me warm

J. McPhee

Selected Discography

A listing of over 120 Joe McPhee recordings

Photo Credits

Page 1: Ziga Koritnik

Pages 2-5: John Sharpe

Page 6: Mark Sheldon


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