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Art of the Improviser

Joe McPhee and His Music Choose Their Own Paths

By Bret McCabe | Posted 11/14/2001

Past the far east side of Brooklyn, nestled south of Nassau and west of Suffolk counties, sits the Pinelawn Memorial Park in the town of Farmingdale on Long Island. For devoted music fans, the cemetery is a something of a mecca. It's the grave site for Count Basie and Guy Lombardo, sure. But on a summer's day in 1967, it became the final resting place for one of jazz's giants, John Coltrane.

"I was always--and, who isn't?--enamored of Coltrane," says improviser Joe McPhee from his home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. McPhee speaks with a candid fluidity that echoes the breadth of his music--equal parts introspective intensity and provocative depth. "And having an opportunity to be present at the funeral, it was interesting on a number of levels. One, it was more of a celebration. It wasn't sad at all. There were lots of people. It was [at] Rev. John Gensel's church; it's a Lutheran Church up on Lexington Avenue. It was just an extraordinary occasion.

"And then I went with Ornette [Coleman] and [the late drummer] Billy Higgins, and we drove to the cemetery," McPhee continues. "By the time we arrived the people had all left because we got stuck in traffic. So we were there, and there was Ornette at Coltrane's grave. And it was just the most extraordinary image, which there are not any photographs of that I know of. I think there was only the three or four of us there.

"There was a kind of respect and almost a transfer of energy that was palpable. To be in that presence and then to go on that evening and hear the Ornette Coleman Trio playing something like [Coltrane's composition] 'Naima' was absolutely wonderful. And like I said, not sad at all. And to hear Ornette's group and Albert Ayler follow--which was, whew, beyond the pale. There's a tape of that, you know. Somebody recorded [it] on a cassette or some tape machine that night. I heard it fairly recently."

The crucial points to take from McPhee's recollection--aside from the surprising existence of a recording of that concert--are his memories of the ebullient respect and sense of community of that day and night. Both permeate the many different varieties of music McPhee has made for the past 30-plus years. Whether it be the hard R&B groove of his 1970 album Nation Time, which was reissued last year, or the pairing of heavy hitters that McPhee and Evan Parker's upcoming release Chicago Tenor Duets promises to be, McPhee's is a music of the moment, players playing the tops off their heads off the tops of their heads. And it's what you'll hear when he comes to the Red Room at Normals Books and Records Nov. 17 to play a show that coincides with the release of McPhee's latest album, Mister Peabody Goes to Baltimore, on Red Room impresario John Berndt's Recorded Music imprint.

Recorded over four days during the 2000 High Zero Festival, Mister Peabody features McPhee wielding pocket trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones, and his voice in different collaborative configurations with reeds player Jack Wright, City Paper contributor Ian Nagoski on electronics, Michael Johnsen on electronics and soprano sax, Sean Meehan on percussion, James Coleman on theremin, and Jerry Lim on guitar. This concoction unfurls head trips like "Before the Fall," a 33-minutes-and-change spiral of peals and squeals and hoots and hollers that bristles with the hallucinatory paisleys of Alan Silva and the Celestial Communication Orchestra and bubbles with the tidal mood shifts of Musica Elettronica Viva.

It's a little loose at times, but free improv is prone to wander. And it's indicative of a musician who approaches performance socially and convivially. During preparation, McPhee is less concerned with going over musical ideas or notations. It's a time for musicians to get to know each other. "If it's improvised music there's not very much to rehearse," McPhee says. "I want to keep it as spontaneous as possible."

McPhee's insistence on immediacy stretches over his many evolutions, from his early years on tenor sax to his experiments with electronics. In fact, his willingness to embrace electronics is a reflection of his creative openness. Though mainstream jazz has only recently embraced electronics in its vocabulary, McPhee's been doing it for years.

"I play often with Pauline Oliveros, who is a pioneer in this field," he says. "I play in a lot of different contexts and I've had a lot of different recordings that have come out recently, including a double CD with the Nihilist Spasm Band from London, On. These are guys who build their own instruments and basically are not even musicians. But they got together about 35 years ago and they wanted to make music on their own terms. And they invited me to play. They're great, wonderful people and they probably couldn't play a melody if you asked them to. But they make, I think, terrific music."

Wanting to make music on his own terms led McPhee to call his creations "po music" back in 1981, a tag he coined to identify his work as divorced from the industry. "If you're labeled a jazz musician or an electronic musician or whatever, you're given so many column inches in somebody's article or so many inches on a record shelf," McPhee says. "I consider myself a musician and I can play in any kind of context I feel like. So where do you put me? I decided to create a place for myself."

These days it's a considerable space. There's a great deal of McPhee product available--12 albums came out in the past two years alone. But he's not concerned about saturating the marketplace. "There are a lot of things coming out now, but there was often a period when I didn't have anything come out," he says. "Some of the material is from years ago, with Nation Time and now Underground Railroad [a 1969 album just rereleased on the Atavistic label]. Those items have been long out of print. So it's really nice to have people rediscover this 30 years later."

The '90s reissue boom has exposed many new ears to the free-jazz underground of the '60s and '70s, and that may, in turn, spark a re-examination of the conservative, neomodernist turn jazz took in the '80s. Hard-line neomodernists maintain that free improvisation burned out in the '70s, that it was not jazz proper. Visual artists and novelists are given the leeway to try new ideas. So let it be with musicians.

That other ideas, however unmarketable, contribute to the always widening but commercially narrow concept of what "music" is, though, seems anathema in the industry. But all roads lead to the inevitable big sleep. And for some, when you meet your proverbial maker is less paramount than the road you take to get there. "I'm looking forward to the performance in Baltimore," McPhee says. "I don't know exactly what I'm going to be doing there or who I'm going to be doing it with. And I find that very exciting."

Joe McPhee performs at the Red Room at Normals Books and Records (425 E. 31st St.) on Nov. 17 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (410) 243-6888 or visit

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