It’s hard to believe Joe McPhee is 75 — and not just because he keeps turning out several albums a year, with no falloff in quality. The multi-instrumental improviser has the energy and unpredictable, erudite-to-juvenile sense of humor he had when he made his international rep in the 1970s. “I don’t take myself seriously,” McPhee says. “I like to make jokes a lot and make people uncomfortable ’cause they don’t know where I’m coming from.”
An example: In 1992, when Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit art photos were making American legislators faint, McPhee promised a Toronto concert audience he’d show them some graphic Mapplethorpes before he left the stage, and finally he did: exquisite closeups of blooming flowers.
Joe McPhee likes defeating expectations: The solo 2012 concert released recently as Sonic Elements begins with five minutes of near silence, as he blows a little air through his pocket trumpet. “There’s a saying, ‘If you want someone to hear, shout. If you want them to listen, whisper,’” he says, explaining the maneuver. “Then I poured water in the trumpet and blew it till all the water came out.” (He also played a long alto solo, at normal volume.)
“Once in Nimes, my quartet without drums followed Art Blakey’s ridiculously loud big band with two drummers. We started playing very softly, and someone in the front row yelled ‘Bullshit!’ So we played softer and softer, and soon the people up front were shushing the ones behind them. In the end they brought us back for an encore.”
McPhee made his name in Europe in the ’70s by furnishing Switzerland’s Hat Hut label with most of its early releases. Those LPs looked like nothing else in the jazz bins, with Klaus Baumgartner’s Saul Steinberg-esq calligraphic cover art, single-pigment drawings on white textured backgrounds. The music seemed just as strange: McPhee’s first Euro recording, 1975′s Willisau Concert, was for his saxes, a South African drummer and droning electronics. The solo sequel Tenor, recorded in an Alpine farmhouse, was flat-out mesmerizing: heart-rending tunes, snake-handling free play sounding like guitar feedback, and foot-dragging chain-gang blues. (The latter’s due for reissue in Corbett vs. Dempsey’s McPhee archival series, which already includes the comparable Variations on a Blue Line/’Round Midnight from ’77.)
Joe McPhee spent so much time in Europe, one reference book insists he moved there, but he’s lived for 40 years in the same house in Poughkeepsie, 75 miles upriver from the Manhattan jazz clubs. For all the attention he got in New York back then, it might’ve been 750. He still works in Europe more than in the States, in all sorts of combinations — sometimes as an added guest with Scandinavian bands The Thing and (on 2014′s Human Encore) the Trespass Trio. And sometimes he plays with tenor peers like England’s Evan Parker and Germany’s Peter Brotzmann.
McPhee’s parents came from the Bahamas, moved to Poughkeepsie from Miami when Joe was small. His father — a big, popular guy with a thick island accent — loved (and looked like) Louis Armstrong, and taught his son trumpet from age 8. When McPhee got older, he started hanging out in Greenwich Village. “I had a pseudo-beatnik period, playing bongos, reciting poetry, drinking Chianti,” he says. “After that I started hearing a lot of music at the Village Gate: Coltrane in ’62, then Eric Dolphy and Miles, who was my hero.”
He had just decided to get serious about music when Uncle Sam handed him a scholarship: He was drafted and spent two years in Army bands, getting his chops and music theory together. Stationed in Germany, he and a friend would travel and sit in at clubs while on leave, with saxophonist Booker Ervin in Copenhagen, and Don Byas in Amsterdam. “We called ‘Night in Tunisia,’ and as soon as we started to play, Don stopped us. ‘No, it doesn’t go like that!’ He showed it to us, then made us play it the rest of the night.” At the bar later, he started talking to one of the locals. He and photographer Henk Kahle have been friends 50 years now.
Some of McPhee’s Poughkeepsie basement tapes — that’s where he’d been storing them — turn up in Corbett vs. Dempsey’s box Nation Time: The Complete Recordings, rounding up two 1970 LPs recorded by his early booster and old friend Craig Johnson, and live recordings that offer glimpses of the artist’s development, playing bop tunes “Milestones” and “Bag’s Groove” on trumpet.
But McPhee was already deep into the avant-garde by the time he mustered out. He had gone to Copenhagen in ’64 looking for Albert Ayler. Back in New York he met Albert’s trumpeter brother Don in a record store; Don invited him to a rehearsal on the spot. “But I had to catch the train back to Poughkeepsie.”
Tenor saxophone was the free player’s horn of choice, and in March 1968, Joe McPhee borrowed one from a friend. “After I’d been playing it two days I took it to a jam session. It was not well received. ‘Whoo — no! Don’t come back with that thing!’ But by the fall, I was playing it in concert.” On recordings with the old Poughkeepsie crowd, he’s still searching; they covered James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” By the mid ’70s he’d found his mature style, switching between brass and reed instruments, unusual if not unheard of. (Benny Carter, Ira Sullivan, Howard Johnson and others do it.) For gigs these days, he’s apt to choose among pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, alto and tenor saxes.
Live, he may also recite a little poetry. When did he get serious about writing? “I never really became all that serious. But I am working on a collection called Selected Musings of a Bahamian Son.”
In the late ’60s he’d hung out in New York a lot; Ornette Coleman took him under his wing for a spell. McPhee recorded an LP with Clifford Thornton and an unreleased session with Dewey Redman. Later, after all those Hat Huts started coming out, Joe did a few New York gigs but not many. “And then I didn’t play there for 12 years,” he swears.
But in the ’90s, America discovered Joe McPhee. He played the October Revolution in Jazz 30th-anniversary concert in New York in ’94, and then the 1998 he played Vision Festival, with what became known as Trio X, with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. After that, gigs came quicker. Now Joe’s one of the cats, always welcome. Lately he’s been playing trumpet/piccolo trumpet duets with ultra-hip Peter Evans.
Even so, McPhee’s second American home turned out to be Chicago. Tenor from ’76 had turned saxophonist Ken Vandermark on to creative music, and in the ’90s he started pulling McPhee in for various projects, ultimately including Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet. Suddenly McPhee found himself with a whole new set of North European contacts, to go with old French allies like Django-meets-Jimi guitarist Raymond Boni.
In 2013 Vandermark released Impressions of Po Music, disarmingly lovely settings of (and fantasias on) McPhee compositions, played by an animated octet including the composer. It’s a reminder of what lovely tunes he’s written; about the only thing to grumble about is the lack of rhapsodic McPhee solos on same. He defers to his younger Chicago colleagues, lets them run with the material.
They do sound good on it. “The album was Ken’s vision — he took a tune like ‘Future Retrospective’ that had a more open rhythm in my quartet version, and found another way to do it,” says McPhee. “We had played all the music live a couple of times, where I took more solo space. But I didn’t want the record to be about me.”