Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Now is the only place where things can actually happen: an interview with Joe McPhee

Recently I interviewed legendary free jazz saxophonist Joe McPhee at Café Oto for the first issue of Cesura // Acceso. 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 particular I wanted to ask him about his approach to collaboration and the politics of music and improvisation. Here are some excerpts from that interview

Survival Unit III @ Cafe Oto

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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: 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?

JM: 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 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 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.



JM: 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?

JM: 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 and 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.

JM: 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?

JM: 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 about 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.

JM: 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: 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?

JM: 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?

JM: 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, which 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: 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 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?

JM: 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?

JM: 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, 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.


JM: 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?

JM: 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.



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