Avant-garde multi-instrumentalist helps keep the music alive
By Ron Wynn
No genre within the American music sphere is less understood or appreciated than what is called free jazz, or avant-garde. Even some of jazz’s biggest fans otherwise pay little or no attention to this music, even though it’s been around in various forms since the ’50s, and has a sizable international following.
Much of that is no doubt due to common misconceptions about its sound and scope. Multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Joe McPhee has been writing and playing avant-garde material since the late ’60s, and is among its most critically praised and successful, as well as most articulate, advocates.
“The main thing that many people don’t understand about this music is that there is composition and technique involved in playing it,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s not just about people getting up and playing whatever they feel. There’s definitely patterns of improvisation, and you react and respond to what others are playing within the music. Yes, there are elements of spontaneity, but there’s also a very high degree of musical knowledge and awareness that’s necessary to properly play this music, as well as instrumental skill.
McPhee made his Nashville debut last Monday night, leading a trio called the “Omnipotent Egyptians” that includes saxophonist John Dikeman, bassist Johnny Runderstuk and drummer Talisman Oosterpark. They’re an offshoot from his other group “The Universal Indians.” In addition to being both group’s principal composer, McPhee plays both sax and trumpet, and is one of the rare musicians who double using brass and reed instruments.
“My father was a trumpet player,” he explained. “So for the first 28 years of my life and career that’s what I played. Then I happened to hear the music of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, and also especially Albert Ayler. There was something in what they were doing that was so striking, and that led me to start playing the saxophone.”
“The first time I got a tenor saxophone I went back to this club where I had been participating in jam sessions,” McPhee continued. “They heard me playing and they told me when the night was over to never bring that horn back. A few months later I was booking all of those guys.”
A Miami, Florida native, McPhee’s recording debut came in 1967 on Clifford Thornton’s album “Freedom and Unity.” Since that date, he’s emerged as one of the most prolific musicians in any style. McPhee’s recorded with small and large groups, big bands, even a string quartet, along with numerous other collaborations that included such avant-garde luminaries as Evan Parker, Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark, Raphe Malik and Mats Gustafsson. He’s toured extensively, particularly in Europe as well as Norway and Switzerland.
McPhee debunks the notion that free jazz or avant-garde music is any more difficult to appreciate or understand than other styles, and says that the biggest key to really getting into the music is the willingness to listen. “I always look for that quality (being a good listener) in any musician that I work with, and it is also very much the key for those in the audience,” He adds. “For me, if you’re willing to listen closely and attentively, then you can follow what other musicians are trying to do.”
Two other people who’ve been key figures in his musical evolution are composer/accordionist/educator and performer Pauline Oliveros. He cites her theory of “deep listening” as a key ingredient in his entire approach, and a major reason why he’s been drawn to different instruments and an array of sounds and idioms. Edward de Bono’s volume “Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity” discusses the notion of solving problems by “disrupting an apparent sequence and arriving at the solution from another angle.”
McPhee adapted this to a method of composition he calls “Po Music,” a way to move from one fixed set of ideas in a process to discover new ones. It’s his own singular writing and playing approach that compares favorably (though not identical) to Ornette Coleman’s “harmolodic” concept, another example of an innovative personality taking conventional musical notions and reshaping them to define a unique style.
McPhee’s lectured about and taught the music at various colleges, and written album reviews for Cadence magazine. Throughout a career that extends over 50 years, he has never been signed by any major American label. Werner Uehlinger began Hat Hut Records in Switzerland in 1975 in large part to showcase McPhee’s work. His recorded legacy now is over 100 recordings on many independent and foreign labels. Some of his best known sessions include those with Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen as Trio X, and the ensemble Naima he’s co-led with Dominique Eade.
Nameless Sound awarded McPee its Resounding Vision Award in 2005. Though he’s far better known outside this country, McPhee expresses no regrets about being totally ignored throughout his lengthy career by major American record companies. “I’ve never had to be concerned about trying to do what might please a corporate label, or about doing what makes you a commodity,” McPhee concluded.
“I can remember what’s happened to some great musicians when they signed with big labels and thought that this was going to be their big break. I remember what happened for instance with David S. Ware. He made some really good records for a major label (Columbia) and where are they are now? They didn’t promote those records, and they never really made him a part of what they were doing.”
“With all my groups now, especially The Universal Indians, which is an Albert Ayler composition, I am surrounded by and working with great musicians. Young guys who are hungry and smart. They really listen closely and push me as a composer and a leader. We’ll do recordings for companies that are interested in the music, and will get it out there.
I’m also learning now to play the trombone. Those are the things that keep me going in the music. I’ve had a great life, wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything. The fact I’ve never made a so-called major label album isn’t something that bothers or concerns me. I’m just trying to keep the music going.”