Artist in Quarantine No.8

Joe McPhee by Žiga Koritnik
Joe McPhee by Žiga Koritnik

On his 81st birthday, jazz legend Joe McPhee has found inspiration even in this “time of error”, as he calls it.

“I would hope the pandemic has slowed us down, made us more aware of the effect of flying around on the climate” he said, speaking from his home in Poughkeepsie, New York.

“Sure, it’s great to be in concert and to be on the stage and all of that. But I could take a break and do things here at home. I would hope that people would be more… caring and more considerate and that we can get rid of That Thing in the White House. That would be a big start.

“I’m terrified. He’s such a disaster. He is infecting his people and killing them. I don’t understand these people who just go there. He is a cult leader like Jim Jones in Jonestown who got people to drink cyanide-poisoned Flavor Aid.

“I hope he doesn’t make it so I can dance naked in my studio! Yeah. Two more days… I have been trying to vote today in early voting but it takes so long. There are long lines and it was snowing and wet and I thought I don’t need to get pneumonia and die! I am amazed. People are just enduring and there are so many, it’s just inspiring.”

Concert with Fred Lonberg-Holme on cello
“The Way we are Living Now”

Just hearing McPhee’s voice is special. Is it the U.S. accent of his native Poughkeepsie? Is it the velvety sound and soft tonality that belies the unbelievable, shocking, pain-filled sounds you know he makes with reed instruments and … also without them, simply using his mouth, lungs and breath?

Earlier this year McPhee looked forward to a three-day October residency at London jazz club Café Oto. It would have been with British trio Decoy.

“I love them,” he says. “I first heard them in 2008 or so in the Jazz North East series in Newcastle. Immediately I thought to myself, those are guys I’d like to play with. And so it was arranged, and we’ve been playing together ever since. I’ve been there three times now, twice in the last couple of years. Jazz North East have a good organisation and they do a good job. The last performances we did were this year, in January in Edinburgh. That was my last visit to the UK.”

McPhee is a legend in his own right but also famous for teaming up with young players. Until the lockdown, he sometimes performed in three countries in the space of a few days, often with musicians half his age or even less.

“I remember Art Blakey the jazz drummer, who led the Jazz Messengers. He was asked why he played with all these young people. And he said: ‘They keep me young, they keep me going.’ And I played for a long time with a group called Trio X, and Raymond Boni and Andre Jaume, and now with Survival Unit 3. These are groups who have been stable and constant. I like that kind of stability but I also like finding new people all over the place. They give you energy and inspire you to do things and to try things.”

Asked how he manages that, he responds: “I am insane!”

Musician, a portrait of Joe McPhee by Alton Pickens (1975)

Po music from inside the closet

McPhee recently completed a solo project based on the “Po” music concept he began working on back in 1981.

“Recently I was invited along with Ken Vandermark, and a couple of other musicians to create a solo project in this quarantine situation, to make a recording at home, not with engineers with fancy equipment. Someone suggested, why don’t you re-create the recording from 1976 called ‘Tenor’. It became an extraordinary success quite by accident. It influenced a lot of tenor saxophone players.

“The original recording was made in a Swiss chalet with over 12-feet high ceilings. After dinner, after some drinks, someone asked: ‘Do you feel like playing something?’ I had some material because I was preparing for a concert in Paris. A microphone was thrown over one of the rafters. It was connected to a cassette recorder and off we went to the races. It wasn’t pre-planned to be a recording but after it was done, we thought that was interesting and maybe it should be released.

“So finding a room with a high ceiling and do it to a cassette was the concept for this new recording. Well, I have a lot of cassette recorders but on that particular night not one of them would work. So, my brothers’ wife said, ‘You know, your brother has a boom box (aka ghetto blaster) with a cassette recorder’. I found a space in a library and I’d played there before with Trio X, but it was just about the room – and it didn’t give anything back. There was no audience, so I thought, to hell with that, I’ll do it at home. But where I live is a busy street with motorcycles and cars. So I waited until evening for the traffic to die down and it got later and later.

“Then I thought, I can’t be playing my saxophone, it’s far too late! So then I thought hm… I’ve got the closet: what if I take my clothes out of the closet? Put a mic in there and play into the closet. It was the perfect sound. Exactly what I was looking for. It was the sound that I wanted. Weird, playing in the closet like that!”

Tribute to Ruth Baader Ginsburg

That day, McPhee heard that Supreme Court Judge Ruth Baader Ginsburg had passed away. He wanted to commemorate her – “for being here”.

“So I played a piece on my tenor sax. But it didn’t work,” he says. “Just at that moment I heard a water tap dripping in the kitchen into a pie pan in the sink. It was making this rhythmic sound. So I put my recorder there and when I played it back it sounded even more interesting because it sounded like African drummers. I kept that and used it as a dedication to the notorious RBG. And the next day at a memorial to her I heard from her Rabbi that she had a sign in her office that said in Hebrew – Tzedek, tzedek – Justice, justice.

“The next day I was asked to add a bit more, so I played into my closet again, but it didn’t work. I thought – this is a disaster. It’s the middle of the afternoon, there’s an auto body shop next door making all kinds of noise, and I said to myself… uh, oh. I waited a little while, then I started to play and then it worked!

Route 84 Quarantine Blues

“I like to capture all kinds of sounds. There’s an interstate highway just where I live. I had record the traffic for future use. So I thought, why don’t I just use that and add with 12-bar blues. I wanted a form that could be a metaphor for finding consistency in this time of madness, this quarantine that’s going on. So I played the 12-bar blues because it would repeat. But I kept on making mistakes and I forgot to turn off my recorder. So each variation of those 12 bars came up again in almost exactly the same tempo.

“Then when I played it back, all of those mistakes were there. But they weren’t really mistakes. I just went over and over. And playing it back there was a slight variation in the tempo, so that it sounds like a saxophone ensemble. It was an amazing discovery. But it was only me. I couldn’t have done it if I had tried to orchestrate it with a bunch of saxophone players. It wouldn’t have worked. This kind of disruption that happened by accident was exactly what I wanted, together with the sound of the highway. It’s going to be called, the Route 84 Quarantine Blues.”

The concept of Po music – of lateral thinking – comes from Edward de Bono, McPhee explains. “The basic idea is that you start out, for example, going in a certain direction. Maybe your direction is north. But you come to a big hole in the road and you have to take a detour that may send you south, east or west. But you keep in mind where you want to go, and on that detour you make discoveries which may possibly be useful. Po is a language indicator to show that provocation is being used to move from one fixed set of ideas to another. Things may not always be what they seem. So, I had the discovery of playing in my closet which was not where I started out but it was where I ended up and it was exactly what I needed.

“Hopefully, I try to reduce thinking as much as possible. Thinking slows down everything. It’s about putting everything you have learned to a practical experience. Doing this recording, I remembered something that Alton Pickens told me: ‘A concept is only useful if it works’. I realised that my concept of looking for a place was stupid. I should have been looking for music first, not the concept!

Joe McPhee playing a soprano solo in front of Alton Pickens’ painting Torque

“You have to learn to let go too. I can’t control anything. I can’t control the space here, the conditions outside. I had to deal with it and I hope I’ve grown in this whole process. It’s inspired me in the things that I have been writing. They come faster. I don’t sleep as much.

Getting the idea physically and trying anything

“Quite often, especially when I’m playing solo, I start from a blank canvas. I rehearse in order to get to get to my idea physically. I don’t practise for perfection because I’m not interested in that. Things happen and they work or they don’t work. Some of that is counter to what I have been involved in. For example, I played with Peter Brötzmann and the Chicago Tentet, an improvising ensemble that was fascinating. In the beginning we worked with ideas that were written out, or they were graphic scores and stuff like that. Then we threw them out and said whatever happens, happens.

“There are some musicians who come and they bring you tons of paper and you end up just reading things but I can’t work like that. I find things along the way like found objects. I don’t know what I can’t do. I have no idea. I’ll try anything.”

I didn’t see one person like me

“My dad taught me to play trumpet when I was eight years old. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. But, I was not supposed to play saxophone and trumpet. My father wasn’t happy with that. He said: Why do that? You will destroy your embouchure.”

As schoolboy in Poughkeepsie, McPhee was taken to hear the Dutchess County Philharmonic, now known as the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. Under flautist and conductor Claude Monteux, it initiated the Young People’s Concert series.

“We were taken there to hear things like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It created all these images in your head, it was great! I loved the instrumentation – the string instruments – but I didn’t see one person who looked like me. Not one, except in the jazz music where I saw people like Miles Davies.

“Eventually I heard the music of Albert Ayler and the world shifted for me. I thought, I want to play the saxophone. I borrowed one from a friend. Two days later, I went to a club where they used to let me play in jam sessions. But they threw me out. But I would go there every Sunday, wearing these mechanics cover-alls, but with a white shirt, a black bow tie and sunglasses. I would sit right in front of the bandstand. But I never brought my saxophone.

“So six months later I invited the guys who told me not to play to a concert in which I was the leader and I played my saxophone. I was about 28. So that was after 20 years of playing the trumpet.”

Finding strength in a tough year

It’s been a harsh time for McPhee as for so many other musicians used to playing live gigs around the world. He finds remote playing and the lack of physical contact alienating.

“Music is a participatory experience,” he knows. “It’s not something that you just put out there and everybody gets it. People have to engage in it actively; the audience has to bring something to it. And we respond to that. As a musician you feel it. It’s tactile and that’s what we are missing in this quarantine situation, playing virtual concerts. That’s why I hate Zoom. I miss that contact, that exchange, whatever it is.”

And in the midst of the pandemic, his younger brother Charlie lost his fight against throat cancer. But McPhee has drawn strength and optimism from the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The protests were very encouraging, even out here in Poughkeepsie. The marches were all peaceful and they were huge. There hasn’t been anything on that level since the Vietnam War.

“This terrible obstacle – the pandemic – makes it possible to create new forms which would not have been found otherwise. And to look for different directions. Now I have time. Instead of flying around and screwing up the planet I’m playing music and I’ve been able to write a lot. I have a book of poetry that I’m working on and my memoir. So it’s slowed me down and sent me in other directions. And I’m looking for new things to do.”

“I think it’s a very exciting time and a very dangerous time because you could be gone in a moment. At the same time I’m having ideas that I probably never would have had. I find myself regressing to a time when I was much younger, when ideas came much faster. Of course then they were wiped away because we had teachers who taught things out of us. We had to let them go so we could conform and be like everyone else and that was wrong. And so now, I can look back in a different way and go back to those ideas I had.”

Further reading: The Big Dig: Cauleen Smith in conversation with Joe McPhee on the 50th anniversary of McPhee’s classic, Nation Time, summer 2020

On the front cover of Wire September 2019

Artists in Quarantine series

  1. Michele del Campo: A silver lining for a scary time
  2. Frances Aviva Blane: Virus – dimensions unknown
  3. Peter Clossick: Mind games under lockdown
  4. David Downes: The Covids are coming
  5. Richard Walker: The chess piece logic of Cuckooland
  6. Caroline Pick: A sense of liberation
  7. Julie Held: Aching
  8. Joe McPhee: Exciting times. Dangerous times.