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

Last Updated: 08/07/2013 6:07 pm

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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.

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