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April 2021
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Joe McPhee Interview By Stewart Smith



photo credit: Peter Gannushkin

photo credit: Peter Gannushkin

‘What time is it?’ yells Joe McPhee at the beginning of his classic 1970 recording ‘Nation Time’. This rousing freedom cry heralds a glorious set of fire music and simmering free-funk that has lost none of its ecstatic power over the years. Recently reissued as a boxset featuring the full sessions and live recordings, ‘Nation Time’ is a free-jazz classic. As McPhee’s friend and collaborator Mats Gustafsson says, it’s “a perfect introduction to crazy music, and it’s deep!” The depth and invention of McPhee’s music is suggested by the vast range of musicians he’s worked with, from jazz and improv titans Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker, to avantgarde composer Pauline Oliveros and LA underground weirdos Smegma. Now 74, McPhee is as adventurous as ever, blowing his saxophone and pocket trumpet in his groups Trio X and Survival Unit, and playing with radical younger musicians like drummer Chris Corsano and Scandinavian jazz-punks The Thing. Given his energy and openness to new experiences, Joe McPhee is the perfect choice for Counterflows’ first featured artist.

I wanted to start by asking about your background and influences. Your family are from the Bahamas: did you grow up with Caribbean music?
Yes, Caribbean music was a big influence growing up but my family exposed me to all kinds of music. My dad taught me to play trumpet. My mom played violin and her sister played piano and organ. I learned about jazz with friends in the late ‘50s.

You attended the funeral of John Coltrane: this must have had a big impact on you?

Mr. Coltrane’s music had a tremendous impact on me from the first time I heard
him. Miles Davis was my great hero and when Kind Of Blue hit with Coltrane, I was in heaven. The next big revelation for me was ‘Chasin’ The Trane’ [seminal free jazz piece from Coltrane’s 1962 album Live At The Village Vanguard]. That blew the doors open. Of course hearing Albert Ayler’s and Ornette Coleman’s bands at the funeral were driving forces which helped lead me to where I am today.

You’re a great multi-instrumentalist, playing saxophone, pocket trumpet, valve trombone and electronics. What attracts you to these particular instruments?
The trumpet was my first instrument which came from my dad as I mentioned. I was familiar with Don Cherry’s music through Ornette but when I saw him playing with Sonny Rollins at Birdland in 1963, I had to have a pocket trumpet. The trombone I play came from my friend Clifford Thornton, it was his instrument. The electronic experimentation and other “peculiar” little things are because I’m curious about possibility.

Could you explain your improvisation concept of PO Music?
PO Music is in simplest terms about possibility. It is derived from Dr. Edward de Bono’s theory of lateral thinking which allows one to discover new ideas while in the process of exploring old ones. For example in my version of [Sonny Rollins’] ‘Oleo’ on hat Hut records, we use the tune as source material, it is out of the bebop tradition. I’m not a bebop player, that is another life. In our exploration, we travel a different road, go in a different direction but in the process make discoveries along the way.

To what extent do other artforms inform your music?
I don’t paint but I’m interested in painting and I have great friends who are painters. It is yet again for me, about possibility, process, form and colours. Sculpture would fit in there as well. All of these disciplines deal with time and space in what might be a metaphor for life. Nation Time has recently been reissued in an expanded edition.

Perhaps you could tell us about the genesis of the album and how you feel about it now?
Nation Time was recorded in concert in 1970 while I was teaching a course at Vassar College called Revolution in Sound. It was at the height of the American rights movement and was inspired by and a tribute to Amiri Baraka. Today I think of it more from a human rights perspective, encompassing more than race. This is an issue that I am constantly interested in revisiting. It is a work in progress which will never be finished. You recently performed Nation Time with The Thing in New York.

What was it like revisiting the material?
I love The Thing and it was an honour to have the opportunity to revisit Nation Time with them. In the 1970s you developed strong links with the European scene, which continue to this day. Which relationships have been particularly important to your music? Every collaboration I’ve had is important to me. I don’t have a ranking system.

Do you think there’s a difference between the US and European scenes, or do you feel you have a common language as creative musicians?
We’re all spinning around on the same planet. Should we ever have the chance to explore other worlds or dimensions, perhaps we might discover different scenes. Otherwise these kinds of narrow differences only divide. We have a common language.

You played in Glasgow in 2006 at the Subcurrents festival. Was it interesting to play alongside noise acts like Wolf Eyes?
Yes, I was there with Chris Corsano and I very much enjoyed the experience. I had a chance to actually sit in with the band Smega, which was fantastic. I learned a lot listening to Wolf Eyes. You’ve explored some beautiful, abstract territory with Chris Corsano. Do you have a concept or certain aims when you play together, or is it more spontaneous? Chris is very inspirational and a joy to perform with. We simply do what we do and listen rather than follow techniques. As Cecil Taylor titled on of his solo recordings, IT IS IN THE BREWING LUMINOUS. I want to ask a few questions related to your Counterflows collaborators. You’ve worked with several of them before, but in different configurations.

Are you looking forward to it?
This is the easiest question. YES!

Firstly, Mats Gustafsson. You’ve played together many times. How did you first meet?
I met Mats in Chicago at the formation of the Chicago Tentet in 1997. Immediately he invited me to join up with The Thing and it’s been ongoing since then. I love the album of garage punk covers you did with The Thing and Cato Salsa Experience. Were you familiar with the material and did you approach it differently to jazz standards, say? I was not at all familiar with the material, I learned to fly like a bird falling out of a nest. But I had a long history of playing in a soul/rock/jazz band called Ira And The Soul Project from the late ‘60s to mid ‘70s. I personally don’t change my approach to the material.

You play with the great British rhythm section of Steve Noble and John Edwards, alongside Alexander Hawkins on Hammond organ, in Decoy.
I love playing with Decoy. I’ve long been a fan of the Hammond B-3, we had one with The Soul Project, so it was like coming home for me. What a wonderful, powerful instrument. I’m a big fan of Jimmy Smith and Larry Young in particular and Alexander Hawkins is carving his own way out of that lineage.

There’s a further connection there, in that he cover art for the fantastic Decoy album, Spontaneous Combustion, was by Oliver Pitt, who plays with Glasgow-based mutant disco band Golden Teacher. I’m looking forward to seeing you play with them, but it might seem like an unusual combination to some.
I will go where the wild goose goes!

Finally, do you have any messages for the Counterflows audience?
“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms … and the autumn moon is bright.” By Maureen Gilmer, a horticulturist. This famous poem from the 1941 classic film The Wolfman speaks of plants that signal a time of magical transformation. Those unfortunates attacked by a werewolf change under the light of the full moon into the very beast that bit them.

Stewart Smith is a freelance music and arts writer for The List and The Quietus