Po Better Blues | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Po Better Blues 

Last Updated: 08/07/2013 6:07 pm
click to enlarge Joe McPhee - FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
  • Joe McPhee

In the world of music journalism, we like to throw around terms like “legend” or “highly influential” when referring to artists whose work we feel has been undervalued. In most instances, the situation is usually one of overreaching, of we scribes letting our enthusiasm get the better of us in order to grab the reader’s attention and make us feel like we’re doing our jobs. But in the case of Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist and composer Joe McPhee, any such advocacies are rooted in pure, documented fact.

McPhee, 68, is widely revered as one of the most important avant-jazz musicians to take the 1960s “new thing” ideas of icons like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders to the next level. His incendiary early albums, Underground Railroad (1969), Nation Time (1970), and Black Magic Man (1970), burn with radical political themes, their rousing, often funk-fueled sound a preternatural balance of aggressive experimentalism and melodic sensibility. His incorporation of psychologist-theoretician Edward de Bono’s principles of lateral thinking into his approach has inspired other players to reevaluate their own methods, while his efforts at the now common concept of blending standard jazz instrumentation with electronics date from the early Seventies. McPhee’s discography continues to swell, with more than 70 recordings as a leader, on solo dates, with his bands Survival Unit and Trio X, and as a collaborator to Donald Cherry, William Parker, Rashied Ali, Matthew Shipp, DJ Spooky, Peter Brötzman, and other luminous names. And he’s a veritable god in Europe, where he tours multiple times each year.

“I really believe that years from now we will look back on some of Joe McPhee’s records as some of the most important records ever made,” says jazz historian and Chicagoan John Corbett, curator of Atavistic Records’ Unheard Music Series, which has re-released several of the artist’s earliest titles. “He can find the music in any situation. There can be the most insane, noisy stuff going on around him on stage and he’s able to pull the music out of it, and not in a way that’s predictable or cloying. Joe is just so deeply musical in everything he does. Just his way of being in the world is musical.”



While the seeds of his gifts are innate, the tree that bears their fruits is one at which the reed and horn player has toiled long and hard to perfect, both on and off the bandstand. “I worked for 18 years in an automotive ball bearing plant to be able to keep playing this music,” McPhee says with stark seriousness. But he starts to chuckle when he thinks back to that period. “The people I worked with at the factory knew I was a musician, that I would go to Europe to play. And they kept bugging me to let them hear my music,” he recalls. “So finally I brought some tapes in for them to hear. Their reaction was, ‘People actually pay to hear you do this?!’ But, hey, that job paid the bills. Although it’s always been a struggle.”

Today, however, it’s a day off—highballs in High Falls, actually. McPhee is kicking back at the bar of The Egg’s Nest restaurant, and the eatery’s interior, an explosion of color with its wild murals and collages of quirky oddments, seems a more than adequate metaphor for the man’s always-surprising music. Dignified in a tweed sportcoat and black turtleneck, he looks like a retired college instructor—which he is, having taught music in Vassar College’s black studies program from 1969 to 1971. On this crystal-blue spring afternoon, he’s enjoying some brief time between tours, having just come off the road in the States with Swedish garage-punk-jazz outfit The Thing to gear up for another trans-Atlantic expedition. The TV’s on overhead and a report about conservative Nikolas Sarkozy’s fresh victory in France’s presidential election makes McPhee uneasy. “That’s not good news,” he worries, cocktail tinkling in hand. “Could be really bad for the arts funding over there. We definitely need help with that over here, too. Instead of this horrific, soulless bullshit that’s getting pushed as a substitute—all of this phony Hollywood stuff we’re being fed that’s all about instant gratification.”

Joe McPhee was born to Bahamian parents in Miami, Florida, in 1939. When he was three years old, the family’s house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the event forced a change. “My dad didn’t want to start all over again down there, he didn’t want to raise a family in the South,” McPhee recounts. “He found work in Poughkeepsie, so that’s where we moved to.”

McPhee started playing trumpet at age eight, sticking with it through high school and a stint in the Army, which stationed him in Germany. But in 1968, during the heady early days of free jazz, he switched to tenor sax as his main instrument. “I had been a huge Miles fan early on, but trumpet players had pretty much fallen off the map by then, in terms of new stuff” he says. “All of the innovations were coming from saxophonists—’Trane, Ornette [Coleman], Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy. The trumpet just didn’t seem to lend itself that well to the new ideas I wanted to pursue.” In the years to follow, McPhee would add soprano sax, fluegelhorn, valve trombone, and clarinet to his arsenal.

McPhee’s first recording session took place in 1967 with him as a member of trombonist Clifford Thornton’s New Art Ensemble for the album Freedom & Unity (released in 1969 on Thornton’s Third World label and reprised by Atavistic in 2001). Soon after, he began leading his own live and recording dates, performing at supportive area venues like West Park’s Holy Cross Monastery. He fell in with New York’s loft-centered free-jazz scene, befriending Donald Cherry, Coleman, and others but choosing to continue living upriver over the intensity of life in the Big Apple. Yet his reputation as a fiery improviser continued to spread, reaching across the ocean and catching the ear of Switzerland’s Werner X. Uehlinger, who started up his now-renowned HatHUT label in 1974 initially to release McPhee’s music. So began McPhee’s ongoing and rewarding association with the Europeans, many of whom he records and performs with. But does he miss playing Poughkeepsie? “I would like to play more around here, but there’s nowhere for musicians like us to play, no clubs for this kind of music,” he laments. “We have to move around the planet [to work].”

In the early 1980s, McPhee’s life reached another turning point when he read Edward de Bono’s book Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity. A Maltese-born academic who has been an advisor to corporations like Coca Cola, IBM, and AT&T, de Bono has advanced the concept of applied psychology by making theories about creativity and perception into problem-solving tools. The root component of lateral thinking is a method de Bono calls Po, or provocative operation, which is used to provide an idea that may not necessarily be the solution or a “good” idea itself but will move the thinking forward to a new place where new ideas will be produced. In a nutshell, it means turning obstacles into pathways. McPhee hit on the idea of applying de Bono’s precepts to his music, making several albums under the banner of Po Music. “It’s a way of steering the music and taking it to places you wouldn’t have gone to otherwise, of making new discoveries,” he explains. He points to his 2004 album Oleo (HatHUT/Hatology), with its two labyrinthine versions of the titular Sonny Rollins classic, as a ready example of the process in action.

Although having to care for his aging parents forced McPhee to the sidelines for much of the ‘80s, by the following decade he was back on the scene, his stature boosted by reissues of his vanguard work and new recordings on vital labels like Thirsty Ear, CIMP, and Okkadisk. And earnest praise from younger groundbreakers like Chicago saxophone giant Ken Vandermark, who first encountered McPhee’s music via the latter’s 1976 solo LP, Tenor, certainly hasn’t hurt, either. “[Hearing the album] was as close to an epiphany as I can imagine,” Vandermark enthuses. “I heard that and literally said, ‘This is what I want to do. This is the way I want to go. This is the music I want to play.’”

So while Vandermark and other adventurous listeners have heeded the call, why should the rest of the world hear McPhee’s music? “Well, I might have something to say,” he offers, humbly. “I’m here on Earth now, so the time to hear me is now, instead of when I’m gone. I’ve always tried my best at what I’ve done, tried to keep the music honest. And I’ve always done it as though I don’t have a moment to waste. Really, I don’t have a choice: I have to do this.

“Hopefully,” he continues, “people will hear my music and discover something new—even if they don’t like my music, hearing it may lead them to something else that they do get something from. It’s a journey, a continuum.”

Survival Unit III, featuring Joe McPhee, drummer Michael Zerang, and cellist Fred Longberg-Holm, will play at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in New York on June 20 as part of the 2007 Vision Festival. Trio X’s The Train and The River DVD and AIR: Above and Beyond CD are out now on CIMP. www.joemcphee.com.



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