Now is the only place where things can actually happen:
an interview with Joe McPhee
The saxophonist Joe McPhee talks to Stevphen Shukaitis on the intersections of improvisation, black nationalism, and jazz history in his work.
Joe McPhee has been recording and performing for over forty-five years, playing both as a solo artist and in an impressive number of collaborative units including Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet and The Thing. In recent years he appeared with regularity at Café Oto in London, one of the key venues for free jazz and experimental music more generally in the UK (and beyond). On any given night McPhee could just as likely be heard playing a tenor, alto, or soprano saxophone, or the trumpet, flugelhorn or valve trombone.
In December 2013 McPhee was scheduled to perform at Café Oto with Survival Unit III, one of his longest running projects. I took this as an opportunity to meet and interview Joe, in particular focusing on his approaches to collaboration and the politics of music and improvisation.
stevphen shukaitis The first thing I wanted to ask you about is collaboration. How do you approach collaboration, not just in terms of particular projects, but in the way projects affect your approach to music more generally?
joe mcphee I really like a lot of what different people do, people whose music I really appreciate. But collaboration, it starts with a real personal kind of relationship. For example I’ve played for long time with a guitarist in France, Raymond Boni. I was in a trio with Raymond Boni and Andre Jaume. I’ve had a long time relationship with another trio in the States called Trio X; we’ve been going on now about fifteen years, it’s been almost ten years with Survival Unit III. And each one brings a different perspective to the music; different instrumentation. Tonight you’ll hear Fred Lonberg-Holm with the cello and the electronics.
I really like electronics and in the early and mid 70s I was playing around a lot with synthesizers and guitar effects pedals. That really interests me. I’m also interested in different drumming styles. The Michael Zerang (from Survival Unit III) style of playing is not typical jazz drumming. He brings another very unique aspect of drumming to the group, gives it a very different flavour. And then I have to adjust too; what instruments I’m going to bring. This time I brought the tenor. And sometimes it has to do more with what can fit on an airplane than, you know, really what I want to play. But that’s the way it goes.
ss Taking a bass saxophone would be more difficult.
jmpWell, I don’t have a bass saxophone. That’s Mats Gustafsson. He just got one and I don’t know how he’s going to travel with that. The tenor is the biggest one I’ve got. But I’ve been playing a lot with a plastic alto that I like. I discovered this new plastic alto that I really like.
ssIs there a different kind of a tone out of the plastic alto?
jmp Yes. Early on Charlie Parker played one, it was a Grafton made here in London I believe. And then Ornette Coleman played one and they were made with a kind of moulded plastic that was quite brittle. And it doesn’t have the same sound as a brass saxophone, it’s a darker kind of sound but it’s one that resonates with me that I like very much and so I’ve been pursuing that. The instrument I have is really designed for children to learn how to play the saxophone but I don’t see why I should limit myself to what I’m playing because of what somebody else does or says.
ss Do you think the kinds of collaborations you have change as they continue for ten or fifteen years? Another band that has played Café Oto a number of times and impressed on that level of long term collaboration is the Sun Ra Arkestra, where a number of the members have been playing with each other for 30, 35, 40 years. And when you watch them you can sense they have this immense repertoire of material that they play, as well as a depth in flexibility in playing developed over those many years. Do you find that you can play differently with people that you play with in longer-term collaborations?
jmp Yes, each collaboration brings its own, unique qualities. It’s quite different, for example, playing with a cello that’s amplified and with electronics and also with Fred Lonberg’s extensive musical experience. It’s very different from say, playing with a bass player, or when I have a collaboration in a trio with a guitarist, it brings a different kind of thing. In the trio with Raymond Boni we didn’t have a drummer because he’s so rhythmic that it wasn’t necessary. And I got a reputation for hating drummers because of that. It wasn’t true, not at all. And then when I change instrument—if I play the trumpet, valve trombone, soprano or the alto, it brings another dimension to whatever that collaboration is. I don’t come with a set of fixed ideas because I hope I’m learning all the time.
ss In a recent issue of The Wire you had an article about the reissue of Nation Time (1971). And at the end of the piece you’re speculating that perhaps Parliament and Janet Jackson might have been influenced by that record?
jmp Could have been! You know, with music of Parliament-Funkadelic. Yes, why not? In terms of speaking about nations, Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) and so forth. Why not? It was talking about community, that’s what I was getting at.
ss Could you imagine, musically, what a collaboration with Parliament or Janet Jackson might look or sound like?
jmp Yes—because I played for many years about the time when this was made with a group locally where I live that was called Ira and the Soul Project. It was soul, jazz and Marvin Gaye, James Brown, all that kind of stuff. We had an organ, a B-3, Hammond B-3, a guitarist, a vibes player, a drummer and another saxophone player. We’d be very comfortable. And I don’t see the difference between that and playing with Sun Ra or playing with Archie Shepp’s group at that time or Ornette’s double quartet. In fact, one of the tracks on Nation Time called “Shaky Jake” is played by a double quartet, which certainly comes right out of Ornette’s idea.
ss In the different projects you’ve been involved in, how much do you see yourself as influenced by the context you’re in? And I mean that both musically but as well as more broadly, the political and social context.
jmp It’s all a part of it. Probably less focused and orientated as it was here. This was about a period of events that were happening in the United States at the time—in the 70s—with the civil rights movement and all that kind of thing, and black nationalism and so on like that. But it’s expanded now much beyond those kinds of limitations to thinking about a larger human community.
ss It seems as though your early recordings from the 70s are very much coming out of the political moment. Would you say that has changed for you or is it just a different moment? What was the relationship between your work and the politics?
jmp The politics and all of that? It’s absolutely essential. There’s no separation. It’s a part of who we are and a bit of why we exist. We’ve got to be involved. It’s a process, it’s about change. It’s about flux and so on. But I think my music, no matter what has transpired since then, it’s always involved some aspect of politics and history. The early recordings that were titled, for example, the first one that I made was called Underground Railroad (1969), which had to do with this network which brought slaves from the south in the United States to the north, to freedom. And I thought if I never get a chance to make another recording I wanted it to be about that. And that’s why the second one was called Nation Time (1971). But after that it began to expand. Trinity, which was the fourth in this series also touched on the blues but another way of looking at the blues. There’s a piece in there called “Delta,” which is not a twelve-bar blues but is blues in feeling. And then the fourth in the series of CJR recordings was called Pieces of Light, which had to do with a bit about knowledge and also a bit of Zen philosophy and introduced me to electronic music, which opened up a whole new world … outside of jazz, into a larger room of music and sounds.
ss It’s interesting that on the cover of Nation Time you’re standing in a Zen garden.
jmp Yes, that was by chance. It was a great place. It’s a curious coincidence and there’s a lot of food for thought in that. I hadn’t given it as much thought as perhaps it deserves. Yes, it was a very peaceful place.
ss What was it like growing up in rural New York? And how did you find your way into playing experimental and improvised music?
jmp Just thinking personally I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and growing up it didn’t seem like much interesting was happening musically, or culturally for that matter. I was a big fan of Miles Davis and I collected every Miles Davis recording I could. And a friend of mine, we were listening to the music one day and he played Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) by Charles Mingus for me and I said “oh my God, what is that?” So I traded my Miles Davis’ Bags’ Groove (1957) for Pithecanthropus Erectus, which opened up all kinds of doors for me. And then I began to listen to Ornette Coleman and to Eric Dolphy and of course Coltrane. And that’s what kicked it open for me. I thought Ornette’s music was the blues. I don’t know why at the time people were having so much trouble with and saying that it wasn’t real jazz and that Coltrane was destroying the planet, that Coltrane would be the death of humanity. It was horrible what they were saying at the time; the end of Jazz, anti-Jazz and all that. What does that mean? I thought, well, that’s the direction I want to go.
ss Would you say that the artists who have the most influenced you have changed over time, over the past forty years? Or are there periods when you go back to certain things?
jmp I think it’s a natural progression in the music. It has flux and changes and is the essential aspect of jazz. Then you listen to some really early jazz pieces and they sound like the avant-garde. Of course, in their own time, they were. What does avant-garde mean anyway? Of its time? You can only be in your time, whatever time you’re in. And you do whatever you can do and you have to break rules. It’s good to learn the rules before but you don’t have to; do whatever you want as far as I’m concerned. And out of that, you know, you can discover something.
ss When you were doing the PO music, were you influenced by Arte Povera?
jmp No, it was a concept of PO music coming from a kind of philosophy of Edward de Bono, who wrote a book called Future Positive (1979). And it was a way of rethinking one’s approach. One example he gave was: say you’re driving down a road and you know your destination is north of where you are, but you come to a hole in the road, which means you have to change your direction. You might have to go west or sometimes maybe even south—in the opposite direction from where you’re going, to get around that hole to get to where you want.
Now when you’re making this detour you’re going to make a whole other bunch of discoveries along the way, that will perhaps influence you and change your original ideas about where you wanted to be. And that’s what I wanted, that’s PO. The PO is a language indicator to show that it’s provocation: don’t take things to be what they seem to be. I used that to say, well, if I’m playing something that seems to be jazz (whatever that is) maybe by going in some other directions with other collaborations, I can discover something else: new instruments, new ways of approaching the music, new ways of listening. So that by the time I get to this destination I’m a different person, and the music’s different.
ss One thing I’m always amazed by, coming back to playing together, is when I would watch the Tentet play, I couldn’t actually understand how it was working. How does it work?
jmp No, we never know either.
ss Clearly something is working but how it actually builds, ebbs, and finds it’s own form of movement is very mysterious.
jmp Well, we’re an organism. At one point when we started we had all kinds of written music and people would bring in all kinds of compositions and it began to sound more and more like an American Big Band. But Peter Brötzmann’s not American, he’s middle European, and one day he said to us “you know, this is not my aesthetic, I don’t want to do this.” So we took all the music and we threw it in the trash and we never rehearsed again. We only would appear on a train platform or at an airport, all of us would get together and we’d come to a place and then we’d play. But we were never really sure exactly what Peter wanted because he would never tell us. When we saw in Peter’s extended interview in The Wire we said “uh-oh, that’s the end of the band.” We said “oh my God, we didn’t know,” and that was really the end of the band. He decided he wanted to do something else. After we left London we went to France and that was our last concert with the Tentet. But in the meantime I’ve played with Peter in duos, Fred’s been playing with Peter and so has Michael but it’s very mysterious, we’ll never know how it worked.
ss Perhaps that’s what made it so exciting, the not knowing—because if you know, maybe it just wouldn’t work?
jmp Well, we never did. We’d try things and not everything worked. Some nights were successful and some nights were not and Peter would only tell us what he hated, he would never tell us what he liked. I don’t know if he ever liked anything, we don’t know. But then we just say “fuck it, we don’t care, we just do what we do and that’s it—we’re here, we’re alive and tomorrow’s another day and we’ll play some and we’ll try again and we’ll keep doing it and doing it again.” How long did we play together? Fifteen years? That’s a long time.
ss Did you work up a conception of politics from improvisation? I don’t mean politics, like a capital P sense, like elections and all this, but some sense of community as formed through improvisation, or a form of being social which isn’t so fixed. Do you think you can get that out of improvisation?
jmp Yes, but you know, it’s on such an individual basis. I don’t know how it would work for everyone. Everybody would take from it what he or she would like to find. I don’t know. I don’t look at it like that. I don’t examine anything too closely except after the fact when we have a recording—and I have a hard time listening to my own recordings, a really hard time. Because that’s something that happened. I’m off somewhere else by then.
ss So for you is there a sense that if it’s over, why go back to it?
jmp No, not so much why go back to it, because you can always learn from what you’ve done … but I’m just in another place and that was then and this now. In the process of doing it, it’s very interesting because that’s a time when everything is really live. Now is the only place where things can actually happen. The past, it’s over, and the future we don’t know. Now is when it’s happening. And you have to be really fast, and slow at the same time because while it’s happening it’s … someone said to me it’s like trying to repair a car while it’s rolling down a hill: dangerous and difficult, but it can be done.
ss That does sound more than a bit difficult—especially when you’re mechanically challenged. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is, how do I phrase this without being off-putting … There are certain artists like yourself who have received a better reception in the UK and Europe more generally than you have in the US. How has that affected you? Was that unexpected or how do you relate to that?
jmp No, it wasn’t unexpected. In the US there was less opportunity to perform, there’s very little money. The country’s very big, it’s difficult to get around. In Europe you can be anywhere in a short time. It was a matter of exposure and also a matter of education. I think that young people are exposed to more varied kinds of music at early ages in Europe than in the United States. Also it had to do with what radio was. FM Radio now is a mess. But there seems to be more variety here. I’m not interested in satellite radio so you can get a station that plays everything from the 60s or everything from the 70s. I don’t care about that. I like the music but I don’t want all of the same thing of anything.
ss Well certainly when you get those kind of stations there are no surprises.
jmp Oh God, you know, I’ve been there once and I don’t want to go back there. At the time disco was happening I hated it but now I like it because I like to dance.
ss What it makes me think of is the way that conditions for musicians have changed over the past forty years and thinking it seems much more difficult to make a living as a musician maybe today than it was in the 60s or 70s.
jmp In that period for me, I was working for 18 years. – I worked in an automotive ball bearing factory. I mean, that supported me, not that music supports me all that well now, but I get to play more and I get to travel a bit and I get to play with people I like. So in that respect it’s much better for me now. I’m exposed to a lot of different situations and contexts and I like it a lot more.
ss Do you think the factory influenced how you play?
jmp Yes because I wasn’t going to do that forever. Once the people I worked with asked me about my music and I had made some recordings. They said “oh, can we hear it?” So, I said, yes and let them hear it and they gave it back to me and said “you mean people actually pay you to play that shit?” So I said, okay, then I don’t do that anymore. I hardly ever play where I live. If you want to hear me play you can come where I rehearse, in my toilet, or you can come to Paris.
ss Maybe this is a cheesy question but if you were talking to young artists today who wanted embark on a more experimental musical or artistic career, what sort of advice would you give them?
jmp Just do what you’re doing and don’t stop, no matter what. You have to keep at it, there are going to be a lot of reasons preventing you, for why you should stop, maybe so you don’t disturb the neighbours or whatever. But don’t stop, just keep doing what you’re doing. Do what you do, know who you are and yes, make no apology: just do it. It’s all in the doing. I don’t do it because I want somebody’s approval, I couldn’t care less. I just do it because I like it. If it’s cool with me then I’m fine.
ss It’s interesting just thinking about the way you’re emphasizing the importance of the present and of doing. I can see how maybe sitting in a in a Zen garden was not so coincidental.
jmp You know, after the fact, I would say that’s true. A friend of mine, in fact, the gentleman who took these photographs, after the music had happened, took me to this place and I think he might have known something that I didn’t realise at the time. But he said “that’s the perfect place, that’s where you have to be.” Someone knew a whole hell of a lot more than I did at the time and thought that the right setting, that was the place.
In the expanded box set [of Nation Time] there are a couple of ballads. There’s one ballad called “Song for Lauren,” which was a piece I wrote for a god-daughter of mine, but there’s also a piece by McCoy Tyner called “Contemplation,” which until now had never been heard, because the music was in my basement for forty years. There are things like that. And I am a big fan of ballads and my reason is because you can’t hide there, you can’t play tricks in a ballad; it’ll be sloppy and it’ll be overly sentimental and stupid if you don’t do it right. Or it can get to the heart of the matter. I like stories and ballads. I make up ballads all the time. Do it on the fly and then whoever’s listening to it can make up their own story and say “oh I thought it meant this.” I don’t know what it means.
ss Are you still living in Poughkeepsie?
jmp Well, yes, I grew up there and it’s close enough to Manhattan, to the airports, to get out when I want. I almost never play there, there’s no point. People who I first started playing jazz with are still playing the same music they were playing back in 1962. And they’re content with that, that’s fine. They wouldn’t be so happy playing with me because they think I make noise, which I do.
ss How has Survival Unit survived and changed and gone through different iterations?
jmp The original Survival Unit came out of the fact that in the late 60s and I had been playing with a local band for a number of years and it began to atrophy. People would leave and it dwindled down to a quartet and finally the bass player decided he wanted to go into politics and the pianist wanted to […] He was raising a family and he needed to make money and the music we were playing was not going to make any money. So everybody disappeared. But there was a little bar where we would play and I would take a record … well, a record player and 33rpm LPs on a Sunday afternoon, and play jazz for people. I would play anything. And they would have something called a “drink downer” and pour something from every bottle in the bar and put it into a big punch bowl and give it to everyone free. So everybody got completely drunk and they didn’t really care what was happening. That was my first Survival Unit because I just sent around and played music for people.
And then I started making tapes so that I could play along with them because that was my intention. One was called “The Looking Glass Eye,” I made multi-track recordings or sound on sound recordings and I would play with them. That was really the first electronic Survival Unit. The second Survival Unit was a group where for a time bass players wouldn’t play with me, I don’t know why but they just wouldn’t so we played in New York City at a radio station, it’s called WBAI. There’s no bass player on that and so Clifford Thornton is on it
Yes that was that. And then we were invited to make a recording in 2004 and the producer wanted people who I hadn’t recorded with before as a group. And I thought of Fred and Michael and I called it the Alto Trio as I was only going to play alto sax and alto clarinet and so we started like that. And just before we were to go into the studio the producer decided to cancel the session. He decided to cancel the recording, for whatever reason, financial reasons I was led to believe. So there we were and we had a little tour and decided to carry on and the next year we got a tour here in Europe and we changed the name to Survival Unit III. And it has to do with the fact that this is the third iteration of the Survival Unit, not that there are three people, because it could expand at any time to whatever number. But this has been the longest running group. I’m very happy with it, it’s great. We haven’t killed each other yet. I don’t think we will.