a column by
Joe McPhee Michael Wilderman ©2008
As mentioned in the introduction to this issue’s What’s New? Roundtable, air flight delays prevented Joe McPhee from participating in the conference held at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon as part of Jazz em Agosto. As readers will quickly ascertain, McPhee’s experiences in the 1960s were complementary to those of Barre Phillips, and that McPhee blazed trails now regularly travelled by Taylor Ho Bynum, Mary Halvorson and their contemporaries. Initially, tacking a separate interview with the multi-instrumentalist onto the conference transcript seemed like a good idea; but it soon became clear that it was more appropriate to have it stand alone. After all, Joe McPhee is no footnote to anything.
McPhee is certainly no appendage to Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, which closed Jazz em Agosto with an exhilarating fury. Even though McPhee played soprano saxophone, Flugelhorn and pocket trumpet in the face of the torrents produced by the lower pitched saxophones of the leader, Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark, the bellowing trombones of Johannes Bauer and Jeb Bishop, and the thunderous rhythm section of bassist Kent Kessler and drummers Paal Nilssen-Love and Michael Zerang, McPhee consistently asserted his unique bead on both the brass and reed language traditions of the past 50 years. Standing out in a crowd is one thing; but, given McPhee’s arguably greater stature as a tenor saxophonist and his lower-profile gifts as a value trombonist and an alto saxophonist, his considerable contributions to the Tentet represents only a swath of the full spectrum of McPhee’s art. More importantly, McPhee has carved out a terrain on each of his instruments that lies outside the long shadows cast by prior innovators, a singular achievement.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that there is no consensus on a definitive McPhee recording, despite his leading or co-leading dozens of albums over the past 40 years. (Admittedly, most folks’ lists would include Tenor and Oleo [1976 and ’82, respectively; hatOLOGY]) In part, this can be explained as a function of McPhee’s wide-ranging interests; he has made compelling recordings of free improvisation, original compositions and extrapolations of disparate figures like Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Giuffre. But, it also stems from McPhee’s practice of taking opportunities as they arise and dealing with them on the terms of the moment. In reviewing McPhee’s recordings, I was struck that there was an even split between repertoire projects and on-the-fly projects in my on-the-spot picks. Impressions of Jimmy Giuffre (1991; Celp), a trio date with longtime collaborators saxophonist/clarinetist André Jaume and guitarist Raymond Boni and the recently reissued Sweet Freedom – Now What? (1993; hatOLOGY), a collective statement about Max Roach made with pianist Paul Plimley and bassist Lisle Ellis, do justice to Giuffre’s and Roach’s legacies by approaching them from unusual angles. Two other dates point up the virtues of McPhee’s PO/lateral thinking stratagems. Legend Street One (1996; CIMP) features a potentially barnstorming band with tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe, violinist David Prentice and drummer Charles Moffett; but, instead of a flat-out blow, McPhee brings the quartet together for only two of the eight tracks, devoting most of the album’s running time to solos, duos and trios. The Open Door (2006; CIMP) finds McPhee playing with bassist Dominic Duval, one of his most steadfast cohorts, but with Trio X drummer Jay Rosen; fittingly, McPhee plays alto saxophone, an instrument he rarely employs.
Undoubtedly, everyone’s list will soon include Celebrating Ten Years of Trio X (CIMPoL), a 7-CD set slated for October release.
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Bill Shoemaker: You are currently playing in an ensemble that plays Albert Ayler compositions and when you present that proposition to people familiar with both you and Ayler –Joe McPhee playing Albert Ayler – that seems like a pretty natural fit. So, I was surprised to learn of your relationship in the ‘60s with Ornette Coleman, who is not someone I automatically associate with you. So I was wondering how that came about and what Ornette imparted to you that has stuck over the years.
Shoemaker: Pretty profound.
McPhee: I was sort of like an Ornette Coleman groupie, carrying his saxophone, walking down Seventh Avenue, stopping at some sandwich place and getting chicken sandwiches and so on.
Shoemaker: So did you ever have any formal or informal studies with him?
McPhee: I spent time with him because I would see him from time to time. At one point I drove him to a performance he had at the Village Gate. He was playing and David Izenson and Charles Moffett were in the band. He was on the same program as Miles Davis and I don’t think Miles was all that pleased with Ornette’s music because he seemed to be kind of distant. And I was there the day that Charles Moffett left the band. What happened was Mr. Moffett had at some point picked up Ornette’s trumpet and started playing and didn’t put it down and Ornette didn’t say anything but I think the next day Charles Moffett was out and I believe Billy Higgins came back and eventually Ed Blackwell came back into the band. Much later I found out that Charles Moffett was quite a trumpet player himself.
Shoemaker: Had you seen or heard Ayler before Coltrane’s funeral?
McPhee: Yes, I had. I’m trying to remember where now, probably at Slug’s or someplace like that. But in fact, in 1965, shortly after I got out of the Army, I went to New York to find some of Albert Ayler’s music because I had been reading about his music and the controversy about it in down beat when I was in the Army. In fact at one point the Army band went to Copenhagen in ’65 and I went to the Montmartre hoping to find him or Don Cherry, to find these people I’d been reading about. It didn’t happen. But Booker Ervin was playing there at the time and he allowed us to sit in and play for awhile. And then when I came back I went to this little record shop on 8th Street and I found a copy of Bells; the record itself was kind of spectacular, with this like silk-screen painting on it. I was just looking at it and a voice over my right shoulder said to me, “So what do you think of this music?” And I said, “I don’t know but this certainly looks interesting and I’m looking forward to hearing it.” And he said, “Well, that’s my brother.” And it was Donald Ayler. He said he was a trumpet player and I said “Well, I’m a trumpet player too and I just got out of the Army and I’m really looking forward to hearing this music.” So he said, “Listen, we’re having a rehearsal,” and he wrote down an address and handed it to me. And he said “Why don’t you just come on over?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to but I’ve got to catch a train because I live in Poughkeepsie, New York and I really have to run and catch this train!” So it never happened. I wonder what would have happened.
Shoemaker: So you had really yet to even begin to play the saxophone?
McPhee: I hadn’t played the saxophone at all at that point; it was three years later on that I began to play the saxophone. I didn’t even own one; I borrowed a tenor from a friend and I kept it for some time. A few days after that I started playing because I went to a club here where I live and tried to play at a jam session and was told promptly, “Don't come back with that thing.” There were many reasons why I was interested in the saxophone for some time because the saxophonists at that time seemed to be the innovators. There certainly were some wonderful trumpet players and other instrumentalists but the saxophonists at that time seemed to be the ones who were moving things forward and Albert Ayler’s sound was like being hit by a freight train, it was the most extraordinary thing I’d ever heard. And that’s why I attempt to play the tenor today.
Shoemaker: It’s always ascribed to having a quality like the human voice. Was that something that attracted you to it?
McPhee: Yeah, that was a big part of it but it was also the kind of vocabulary, the language that he had that seemed to me to be dealing with other elements of the music beyond just the traditional things of rhythm and harmony. There seems to be something else. Later I read some interviews with Albert where he began to speak about vibrations and also about it being beyond notes and into colors and things like that. I understood what he was talking about.
Shoemaker: You were working with Clifford Thornton at this time. How did Clifford Thornton’s music fit into this kind of cosmology, so to speak, where you had so much innovation going on around you at that time?
McPhee: With Clifford, at that time I was only playing trumpet and I think what he gave to me was his compositions. I had known Clifford for some time, especially the Freedom and Unity project that he had; there was an alto player on that recording by the name of Sonny King. He was quite an amazing player and Karl Berger was on it and, in fact, really startling, when I went to the recording session, there was Jimmy Garrison, and he was the first bass player I recorded with and that was absolutely phenomenal. Very interesting, and of course, it was through Clifford, his influence, that he got Mr. Garrison.
Shoemaker: Clifford had a very developed sense of long-form composition which was somewhat different than what was going on with a lot of musicians. Was the compositional aspect of what Thornton was doing something that stuck with you as well?
McPhee: Yes, well, in fact it was Clifford who actually showed me the first piece of written jazz composition. He showed me various ways of how to approach it and things like that. Later, his Gardens of Harlem with the Jazz Composers Orchestra was a large-form piece and I had a chance to play it with Cliff. He was teaching at Wesleyan University at the time and he invited me to play, in fact, there’s a recording of it, I have a copy of it. Before the piece was even given the title of Gardens of Harlem, it had another title. We recorded that; played it as kind of a warm-up to the recording date. I’m not on the recording because at the time I was working at a factory and I had to kind of sneak away and was able to play with the group but I wasn’t able to get away again when they did the recording. Because of that contact with the Jazz Composers Orchestra I was invited to play with Don Cherry for the Relativity Suite. That was in 1972, we worked for a week developing the various sections of that piece and then there was finally a concert which was also recorded but because at the time there were technical problems with microphone cables snaking through the audience and so forth, and there were all kinds of technical problems, that recording wasn’t used and the Jazz Composers Orchestra went into the studio again. And again, because of the work situation, I couldn’t get away and so there I was at that concert but not on the recording. I mean, technically now it could probably be dealt with using all the digital stuff. I recently heard a copy of that; but it has never been released.
Shoemaker: Incredible. Also during this period of the early ‘70s you’re beginning to put together your own ensembles. What kind of a space, so to speak, were you trying to carve out for yourself in terms of an identity as a leader, a composer and an improviser?
McPhee: Well, things began to come together almost by accident. First, like I said, when I started to play the tenor I was told not to bring the horn around anymore because it was threatening my friends’ jobs, their gigs and stuff. A whole year went by and I would go to those clubs, those jam sessions. I’d put on a pair of mechanic’s overalls, a white shirt with a bow tie and big round sunglasses and I’d sit right in front of the band and they’d never notice if I had an instrument or not, they were hoping that I didn’t. And a year went by and in the interim a friend of mine, Craig Johnson, invited me to do a recording for his label, which is a separate thing from Cadence Jazz Records; it’s CJ Records, actually. So I invited some of the guys who had asked me not to play, I invited them for my first recording. I think within about six months after I started to play the saxophone, I got some musicians together, an ensemble, and we played at Holy Cross Monastery, which is just across the river from where I lived, I knew the monks there and they made a space available. And I played tenor. That recording is available on Atavistic, on the Nation Time release there’s an extra piece. That first recording of the tenor’s on there. So things just began to happen; I didn’t have any design in mind for where I was going to go or how I was going to do it, I just followed my nose, I guess.
Shoemaker: Nation Time, I guess you were explicitly referencing the LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka text of the same name, were you not?
McPhee: Yes, absolutely. I’d seen something on TV with Amiri Baraka at that time. Of course there was a lot of nationalistic kind of events going on and I was teaching at Vassar College in the Black Studies program there at the time and I had this concert set up. Even in the Black Studies program I was not really a part of the real Vassar Music Department, so I didn’t play at Skinner Hall which they have at Vassar College, that concert was recorded in a library. I invited musicians who I knew locally who we’d had jam sessions to play with me. But I wanted to galvanize students to get them to respond to what Amiri Baraka was talking about and I just used that as a sort of rallying cry. I don’t know if I misspoke before. Nation Time was the second recording; the first recording on CJ Records was Underground Railroad.
Shoemaker: What was it like at that time considering that a lot of universities were putting African-American musicians into their Black Studies program as opposed to their music programs? What was that like, being in a university setting in that context at that time?
McPhee: Well, I was invited because Vassar was very progressive and very much a part of thecommunity here long before any of the civil rights stuff was happening. Students would come into the community centers and work with the children and so forth. I can remember being twelve years old and meeting some of the students who would come and help with the art projects and so forth like that. It was interesting in that they wanted to have an urban center; they really wanted to bring the university into the community. So they were looking for people who were involved in the arts, drama and in music, to be part of this program. And I was suggested by a fellow who I was working with by the name of Oliver Pitcher who was a playwright, an actor and had worked with the Negro Ensemble Company and so forth. He invited me to participate in the play Dutchman by LeRoi Jones. Of course, it’s a two person play and I played a character named Clay who gets involved with a young lady on a subway and eventually is killed. It’s about this confrontation between these two people and he’s killed and dragged off the subway and so forth. When he was invited to do the drama program, he brought my name up and that’s how I got involved with that.
Shoemaker: It must have been quite a conflict of culture; here you have Vassar on the one hand and the factory on the other.
McPhee: Yes, quite a contradiction. The factory gave me an economic base. I had no intention of ever staying in that factory. It was a big part of the community here, this is a big blue-collar community, there’s IBM and there was this factory Schats Federal Bearings where I worked and there were a number of factories. It paid my expenses. I worked in the summer when the factory closed for two weeks. Everyone went on vacation: I would work during the summer and save up time and I was therefore able to go, at my leisure pretty much, to Europe and get involved in festivals there. In fact, at one point I had enough seniority so that I could have three weeks off and I’d go play in a festival and when I came back my fellow workers would ask me, “What did you do on your summer vacation?” I’d say, “Well, I went to France and I played in a jazz festival.” They’d say, “You did what?” They’d say “Well, if you’re that good, why did you bother to come back here?” And I’d say then as I’m saying now, “It pays my way, I can do other things.” And then they’d say, “What’s your music like?” And I’d let them hear a bit of my music which was a bit of a mistake because they’d say, “Oh my God, you mean people actually pay you to play that?”
Shoemaker: Who first invited you to Europe and what did you do?
McPhee: Well, actually there was a gentleman by the name of Ken Brunton who came with some mutual friends to my first class at Vassar. After the class was over we went out and had some drinks and I met his family and we became friends. He worked for IBM and he was transferred to Paris for some time. He was living near Paris and he said, “Listen, we got a place here, why don’t you come on over for vacation and maybe you could bring your horn and we could see if we could set something up.” Well, some concerts were set up and I was invited to play. At that time I was playing with a synthesizer player, John Snyder, who had this ARP 2600 synthesizer and I said, “OK,” and it was suggested at that time that Michael Carvin could be the drummer. Well nobody traveled with a synthesizer; this was 1975 and an ARP 2600 is a big piece of equipment. To go off with that and try to play jazz was pretty out. Anyway, Michael Carvin couldn’t make it and it turned out that there was another drummer available, Makaya Ntshoko, who had come from South Africa with Dollar Brand, as he was known then, who was living in Switzerland. And we were put together. Unfortunately, the woman who was our agent at the time didn’t do a particularly good job. She didn’t have transportation for us. I ended up borrowing my friend’s car and we drove around in it through the Alps one night on our way to Graz, Austria, because it seemed like the straightest way to go. We took these squiggly little roads going from point A to point B, as opposed to going by the autobahn around the Alps. Ended up in the Alps all night, burned out the brakes on the car and so forth like that. Anyway, some 20, no almost 30 years later I went back to Graz and a man came up to me with a copy of the flyer from that original concert saying, “Do you remember being here?” I said, “I certainly do.” And he said, “I was a student at the time, I was at that concert and that was what made me listen to this music.” So it had some effect.
Shoemaker: Was it on this trip that you met Werner Uehlinger?
McPhee: No, I met him prior to that. He had heard some of the recordings that I did with Craig Johnson and Mr. Uehlinger was working for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals at the time and he came to the States on business for that company. While he was there he got in contact with us and he came to dinner and at dinner we played some tapes from the Nation Time concert that we didn’t have the money to produce at the time but was going to be maybe the fourth or fifth recording that we were going to put out; I think it was the fifth one. So he was interested; he didn’t have a label and he put it out and the title is Black Magic Man, it’s the first Hat Hut recording, but it has no number I don’t believe. That was the beginning of his company which of course still goes on today.
Shoemaker: Well, in pretty short order you were recording very regularly for Hat Hut.
McPhee: I think the first real recording for Hat Hut was the 1975 Willisau concert, which is the John Snyder and Makaya Ntshoko album. Then there were a number of solo recordings. At some point, there seemed to be a label developing. I don’t know if we really intended that to happen or if it just began to happen on its own. But you can’t have a label with one artist and I think perhaps the next person was Steve Lacy. In fact, in 1977, Steve Lacy was invited to come to Basel and he and I were on a program playing solos and there’s a recording, one of the early Hat Hut recordings of that. I played first and it was pretty bombastic: tenor, soprano and trumpet and I was blowing my brains out, which one does when one is young and stupid. And Steve Lacy played and I heard the first notes come out of his horn and I said, “Oh, my God!” I had heard this music before but here was this giant playing and I’m thinking, “What did I just do?” And he said, “Listen, when I finish, why don’t we play something together?” and I said, “Yeah, sure!” But I’m listening to him and I said, “Oh, my God, now what did I do? And what should I play? Is it going to be the tenor or the trumpet or the soprano?” and I said, “No, tenor is too much, I’ll play the soprano.” And then it came time to play and it was even worse and I said, “Oh really, what did I do now?” So, we did play and it was recorded and I’ve got a cassette of that concert which I did not play from 1977 until after Steve died. I put it in a drawer someplace and said, “Oh my God, I embarrassed my whole family, I can’t listen to this.” And then when Steve died I took it out and I listened to it and it’s interesting, you know; it’s not what I thought it was. He was very kind, and very generous and quite nice.
Shoemaker: So musically it kind of worked then.
McPhee: It worked, yeah. It did work.
Shoemaker: Fantastic. Was this a whole set or just like one piece?
McPhee: No, I think we played maybe two or three different pieces, if that’s what you’d call them, I don’t know, I don’t remember exactly right now, but no, it went on for a little while.
Shoemaker: Well, you also became – I don’t know what the right term is – an associate or an employee of Hat Hut?
McPhee: Yes, my title was Vice President in charge of Marketing and Promotion. I said something about that in an interview in The Wire recently and Werner Uehlinger saw it and I don’t think he was too pleased because, I said, “Well, it’s a title. I’m not all that wrapped up or enamored with the title.” It was a position which I thought would give me an opportunity to work on the inside of the music business in another capacity. I was then approached often by musicians who thought I had some kind of power. I didn’t have any power. Certain decisions are made by the producer and it was not my purview to say this or that or the other thing. It was a bit frustrating in a way, sometimes you’d say something like, “Mr. Uehlinger has got his own ideas and he has the final say on what happens.” And they say, “Well, you know, it’s a nice idea but I wanted to try this my way.” So, then it was up to me to try to support that idea.
Shoemaker: But it did give you a kind of a vantage point on the business at that time that few musicians had. In terms of what was going on at that time, in comparison to what is happening now, what is your take on that earlier period in terms of what was being done right or what was being done incorrectly in terms of marketing the music, in terms of building an audience for the long hall?
McPhee: Well, we were, with CJ Records and Hat Hut Records, independent. We worked with people like New Music Distribution which was a conglomeration of independents and so on. There seemed to be more of this independent activity and it seemed to be more varied. Then the giants, the big companies, began to absorb the music: What comes to mind, and I don’t have all the details, is David S. Ware on Columbia. Seemed to me that these big companies could just take this music and use it for write-offs, and not be terribly interested in just getting it out there as the independents were and that was what they did. And when the digital technology started to happen, I think it was maybe about 1985 or so, I remember going to Rudy van Gelder’s studio. We were recording Vienna Art Orchestra digitally on some kind of tape, like video tape and of course Rudy van Gelder didn’t want to have anything to do with that. Mr. Uehlinger brought his own engineer and so forth and recorded the music with the Sony PCM recording device. Eventually, van Gelder, I heard him on WBAI, I think, one time beginning to say, “Wow, this is the way to go.” For me at that time, when the digital thing happened, I had the idea that distribution was going to be completely different; there would be these new storage devices. I didn’t know what mechanism it was going to be but at that point maybe there would be kiosks in music shops and people would order their music and have it produced right in front of you, you know. It’s much different now. Downloads, I didn’t know what a download was. But that’s what it’s become. So, it’s quite a different thing, the whole landscape has changed now and the CD market is in very dire straits. I don’t know; it’s a very curious situation.
Shoemaker: Certainly is. In terms of that period, on the one hand you’re working with Uehlinger in terms of Hat Hut but you’re also really building a network of colleagues in Europe like André Jaume and Raymond Boni. In a way, it kind of inverted the usual relationship, or, up until then the historical relationship between American and European musicians in terms of you sought these guys out to work with you on a collaborative level as opposed to hiring them as a rhythm section.
McPhee: Yes, absolutely. For one thing, I live here in Poughkeepsie, New York. I’m outside of New York City and I have to find people to play with. I wasn’t invited to play in New York between 1984 and 1994. Prior to that, I played either solo or I played in these extraordinarily strange, I guess, ensembles that seemed not to have anything to do with jazz. But I was always interested in more than being labeled or being put into a box, I would play with anyone who would be interested in exploring the directions that I wanted to go in or I would find people who were doing things that I was interested in, I didn’t develop the kind of cliques or political relationships that sometimes exist in big cities. I would find say, Davey Williams down in Alabama or people out on the West Coast. Wherever I would find people, we would play music, you could call it whatever you want, I don’t particularly care, give it any kind of label you want. That’s one of the reasons why I decided why, if somebody’s going to make a label and a place for me at Tower Records or wherever, then I’ll decide what my label’s going to be. I’ll say, “You’ll find Joe McPhee’s music in his PO music section.” Now, that’s a very distinct section and there you’ll find all my music. I made up that label from the de Bono lateral thinking concept.
Shoemaker: I first remember seeing the term PO Music in the middle ‘80s. Is that when you first developed it?
McPhee: 1981, to be exact.
Shoemaker: What did the PO music concept provide to you that you didn’t have before?
McPhee: Well, it was de Bono’s idea of lateral thinking and it wasn’t so much that I didn’t have that before because I would just jump from one idea to another. For example, in this lateral thinking concept, the idea is to take fixed sets of ideas that are already known. They might not necessarily represent one thing or another, but they might. PO is a language indicator to show that provocation is being used to move from one fixed set of ideas to another. You might start out in one direction, and know where you’re going; you may be driving down a road, for example. And you’re going north, but there’s a hole in the road so you have to detour and for some time you may be going south, east or west. You’re not going in the same direction but you know where you want to be. And as you go off on these tangents, there are other little roads might go down and discover new things. These are not what you set out to find, but these new things which will enhance your experience. And then you eventually get to wherever you want to go. So, I thought of that, that the word PO in this concept comes from words like possible and poetry and things like that. Positive. And when I saw de Bono’s book on this lateral thinking thing I thought, “Yeah, OK, this is an idea that I could tell stories to musicians and we could come up with these ideas. Not necessarily my ideas, not necessarily exactly what I wanted to do but we will discover other things in the process.”
Shoemaker: What are some recordings from that period that you think best exemplify the application of the PO concept?
McPhee: One in particular. I was inspired by the quartet of Sonny Rollins when Don Cherry played with him. One day in August of 1963 I was in the Army and used to come home on Saturday or Friday night and at this particular time I didn’t have time enough to get all the way home so I came to New York City, I went to Birdland and there was Sonny Rollins playing with his quartet and I heard Don Cherry playing live for the first time. It was extraordinary. I had heard him playing the pocket trumpet on recordings but when it’s right in front of you like that, I mean it really just grabbed me. And that quartet was quite something. It was like Ornette’s group without Ornette, but very different. And then there was the, I think it’s an RCA recording Our Man in Jazz and they play “Oleo” on that. And that was the inspiration for what I think is the first recording where I used that title, PO Music. And we played “Oleo”two takes over and we played it very fast. Now we’re talking bebop music, which is life, and I’m not a bebop player, I’ve tried to play it but it’s not my life, it’s another way of looking at things. We take the tune out of that literature and we adopt this kind of Po way of looking at it. We’re heading in a certain direction but we don’t necessarily go there and I mean Raymond’s guitar is fantastic in that. I mean it’s a whole other thing going on. So that album, Oleo,is the best example of it.
Shoemaker: Earlier you were talking about not being invited to play in New York between ’84 and ’94. It made me think that in the early ‘90s you seemed to be “rediscovered” in a way.
McPhee: You know it was John Szwed who was responsible for that. He invited me to play in a program to celebrate the October Revolution of 1964, 30 years later and he invited me to get a group together. Well, I really didn’t have a group as such, at that time, that was before Trio X and so I got Wilbur Morris and Borah Bergman and Rashied Ali, we played as a quartet and that was recorded. What was the name of the label?
Shoemaker: It was on Evidence.
McPhee: Evidence, yes. That was the beginning and it wasn’t that I was being blacklisted or anything, it was just that I don’t live in New York City so I’m not around the scene. There were scenes and things in places. And then I was invited to Chicago by Ken Vandermark because a few years before that I saw Ken in Vancouver, there was an article in a magazine and he was describing how his father had given him a copy of the recording Tenor and he said, “Listen, if you want to play the saxophone, listen to this.” And Ken made some very nice comments about my music and so forth and we happened to run into each other in 1993 in Vancouver and he was playing with his group and he said, “If you come to the concert just let me know.” And I go there and I hear him play one of my pieces. I never heard anyone playing one of my compositions before and so out of that he invited me to Chicago and we had a recording session before we even had a concert, before we had really played together, which was a strange situation. There was a guy there in Chicago who said, “Listen, you’re going to be playing here, why don’t we do this recording?” Went into the studio and recorded before we had the concert. And it’s called A Meeting in Chicago. Out of that people began to pick up on my name, I guess, and I started to be invited around in the United States. Prior to this most of my playing was in Europe.
Shoemaker: Vandermark is very unique in the sense that not only is he a very creative person but he’s a very industrious person in terms of building infrastructure. So why do you think he had been so successful at that when a lot of people have not?
McPhee: I attribute it mostly to his stick-to-it-ness and the fact that he seems so driven. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone as driven as Ken Vandermark. He’s a marvelous, warm and generous person and he just keeps, if you notice all these different ensembles and different projects that he has, it just goes on and on. And then, it didn’t hurt to have won that MacArthur grant. You know, he invited me, not knowing that he had won that; this was the second time he invited me to Chicago, to play duets with Hamid Drake and there’s a recording of that event called The Emancipation Proclamation. So I arrived in Chicago and came to The Empty Bottle and Ken was on the road, hadn’t come in yet. And there were all these people around talking about, “Who is this Ken Vandermark?” “Ah, he’s some shameless self-promoter who’s gotten this grant.” I said, “What are you talking about?” They said, “Well, he got the MacArthur grant.” So there were television people there and so on and Ken came in off the road and he was besieged by all these people following him into the toilet and everywhere else. Here he was, he got this grant and now the Tentet, I think a lot of the money he got he just put toward the Tentet. We went on the road in a bus like the Basie Band, you know, traveling all around with these twelve people and a lot of the time we flew. He just put everything into that kind of thing. That’s the way he is. It’s that energy, I think, that he brought to Chicago. So, that’s how my connection with Chicago happened and when John Corbett and Peter Brötzmann wanted to expand the group from an octet to a larger ensemble, Mats Gustafsson and I were invited to join at the same time. At that time my connection with Gustafsson and The Thing and all of that happening with the Scandinavian guys, it’s just been that cascading kind of situation.
Shoemaker: Now in getting back to Albert Ayler, Brötzmann is a very interesting extension of Ayler’s language in as much as Brötzmann had heard Ayler a lot when Ayler was in Europe in the very early ‘60s. Maybe Brötzmann has a few years on you but, generally speaking, you and Brötzmann are contemporaries. How do you see this kind of synchronicity of you developing your music over here and him developing his music over in Europe in terms of its similarities of purpose and methods?
McPhee: Well, it’s curious because, actually, I’m older than Peter by maybe a year even. It’s very curious; this question has come up before. You know, listening to some of Peter’s early work, beginning, I think we began around the same time and Peter’s a very solitary kind of person, he doesn’t really talk all that much about what he’s been doing but we did have some time to speak about this. And about what we listened to in the same period of our lives. I was listening to in the early ‘60s music by Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, a lot of people, Phineas Newborn and people like that. Peter was listening to the same things. We just kind of looked at each other: How could this be? You’re in Germany growing up under this Cold War situation; being German weighed heavily on him in terms of what happened during the war and so on. And here we were in the civil rights movement here in the United States with these kinds of forces pulling on us, but we’re listening to the same kind of music and had very much the same interest in Albert Ayler. I don’t know how it works except that I think there’s a synchronicity all around the world; I think we’re all connected by some kind of thread. I don’t really know but the fact that we came together and actually now have an opportunity to play together is astounding to me. It’s really wonderful.
Shoemaker: Now I’ve only seen you with the Tentet twice but both times you played pocket trumpet and I think soprano both times. I haven’t seen you play tenor with the Tentet nor have I ever noticed you playing tenor on one of their CDs. Is that a conscious choice?
McPhee: Yes, that’s because I was originally invited to play as a brass player. They had four very strong saxophone players and they didn’t need another one so I was sort of disinvited to bring a saxophone for awhile. And then things changed when Mars Williams left the band and then I was allowed to bring a saxophone, if you will. But tenor, there was no reason for me to play tenor, I mean Ken was playing tenor, Mats was playing tenor or baritone and Peter. So I played valve trombone sometimes, I don’t bring it all the time because I’m limited to what I can carry. I’ve got Clifford Thornton’s trombone and I have recorded with it on the duet recording with Jeb Bishop and there’s a couple of quartet recordings with Peter and I played tenor, sometimes soprano, yeah. You don’t need another tenor in the Tentet.
Shoemaker: You have a lot of outlets for your tenor, I guess Trio X being the most constant over the last decade or so.
McPhee: Celebrated our tenth anniversary this year.
Shoemaker: How difficult is it to maintain Trio X, particularly since you’re all Americans and the circuit in America has basically disintegrated?
McPhee: Yes, and we’ve only had a few opportunities to play in Europe. It would be more problematic if we didn’t have opportunities to play outside of Trio X. Trio X has a particular take on the music. I have another trio, as a matter of fact, called Survival Unit 3, with Fred Lonborg-Holm and Michael Zerang, where the music is completely different. So, Trio X, we may not play for months and months at a time but when we get together it’s like we never left. Bob Rusch at Cadence had taken us on a tour here in the United States for the first time a couple of years ago and the CD from that tour is about to come out from that tour. In October we’re going to be on another tour here in the States. But we manage by just doing other things.
Shoemaker: What is the chemistry that you have within Trio X that can keep the music at a consistently high level even though months, if not years, can pass between concerts or tours?
McPhee: Well, we share the same language; we share the same attitude toward music, goals. That doesn’t mean that we all like the same thing, we bring various elements to the music, sometimes it’s tension, because we are very different people and we have very different takes on what happens or what should happen. And then, of course, Dominic Duval played for some time with Cecil Taylor and with a number of other fine ensembles and he was a singer in a doo wop group on a street corner and I did that kind of thing too, and Jay Rosen I think is a master percussionist who really reveres drummers like Max Roach and people like that so we keep it fresh. We have a lot in common, plus we tell jokes and we never rehearse. We don’t practice what we do in terms of trying to make it perfect or to repeat things we do. We may play themes and stuff because to start you use any kind of source material. I’m a kind of romantic, I like ballads and so on, and I like the idea of telling stories and just having a good time together. It’s my life.
Shoemaker: Well, we’ve been talking for some time now. Is there anything else that you’d like to talk about?
McPhee: Yeah, well we’ve got this project now with Roy Campbell and Warren Smith and William Parker in a tribute to Albert Ayler and I can tell you we just had our first concerts just about a week ago starting off in Sardinia and then we were up in Budapest and finally in Antwerp, Belgium. The first concert for me was the most unnerving thing I think I’ve experienced in some time because I’m playing tenor, we’re playing Albert Ayler music, we don’t want to copy, that’s not the point, we want to play the music, be true to it to do a tribute, finding a way to do that and being cast in the role of, like, Albert, in the shadow. That was absolutely terrifying to me, until we had played the first concert and then we found a way; I think it’s all evolving and we’re going to have a longer tour in November. But it’s evolving, how we approach the music, listening to Albert’s words and trying to find the sound, and to be true to that and to the spirit of the music. It’s really quite an interesting growing experience for me and also I’m just finishing up some work on a project that I started in the year 2000 to celebrate the change of the century and so I made a proposal to some people in Europe for what I called my Albert Ayler 2000 Project with four bass players and myself. Paul Rogers, Dominic Duval, Michael Bisio and a French bassist Claude Tchamitian and we played a series of concerts and we never played any of the actual compositions because we wanted to play in the spirit of Albert’s music. So I’m just on the verge of having that ready I hope for next month to have it released to a CD set called Angels, Devils and Haints. The title comes from an exhibition I saw at the Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore and it was an exhibition of outsider art, art brut if you will. And the title it seemed to me reflected some of the titles of Albert’s own titles and works and so forth and kind of his life. A haint, you know, is a colloquial term for ghost or haunt. So that’s the next project and then there’s a two LP set being prepared now out of Lithuania; we were in Lithuania a couple of years ago and we played a concert that was hosted by the Ambassador from the United States to Lithuania, which was quite something. We go into this hall and the great seal of the United States is on the wall and we’re introduced by the Ambassador and there’s a DVD from Cadence.
Shoemaker: The Train and the River.
McPhee: Yeah, but all the music from that is now being prepared by people in Lithuania.
Shoemaker: Fantastic. That was a very interesting film. What I thought was interesting was how the filmmakers dealt with the fact that they had a very limited access to you. And, by definition, it’s a very fragmentary experience that you have to then create some sort of coherent space out of. And I thought that they handled that very well.
McPhee: Oh, they thought about things and they had questions and the way they did it was really an extraordinary experience. It was so welcoming and we just arrived there and they said there’s a journalist and he has this thing and he’s been listening to you and he wants to do this. It just happened like that, so naturally, in a way.
McPhee: Yeah, I think they did, too.