Poughkeepsie, NY, legend Joe McPhee will turn 79 in November. I already have a predilection for musicians whose work continues to astound beyond their fifties–it’s probably partially because I require hope as I age myself–and I am not sure I know of one who’s work is more astounding, more prolific, and more consistently satisfying to me than Joe’s. His late-’17/early-’18 album Imaginary Numbers, in a responsive trio setting and featuring a scintillating Coltrane nod, is one of my recent favorites (I’ve probably played it seven times in four months), and I learned yesterday that he has a new one in the chamber, access to which follows, should I seduce you into partaking of the man’s magic:
McPhee plays tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone, the trumpet, flugelhorn and valve trombone–at least. I suspect that’s a partial list. Also, “plays” is a reductive verb in Joe’s case; from caresses and whispers to jolts and hollers, he knows how to speak multiple musical, emotional, and intellectual languages through his instruments. Yes, he’s a jazz player, and he can play inside, outside, and in between, sometimes all in the same song–try “Never Again,” from In Finland, with Matthew Shipp, if you can find it.
But he also defies that categorization. He can play, and has played (damn near) with everyone: the example I’m listening to as I hunt and peck is one of his recordings with Two Bands And A Legend (that’s also the title), which features Norwegian garage rockers the Cato Salsa Experience and Scandinavian wailers The Thing. By his partners’ acclaim, McPhee is the legend, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find another album that includes covers of “Louie Louie,” The Sonics (taken into free jazzland and dragged screaming back), Ornette Coleman, and The Cramps.
In additional, he’s comfortable in every numerical combination I can think of. He’s heart-piercing on the solo Tenor, endlessly interesting across seven discs with only his drummer (and frequent partner) Paal Nilssen-Love on Candy (yes, I’ve listened to it in its entirety twice, holding his own and then some with a free jazz big band (Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Octet / Tentet).
Yesterday, I listened to McPhee’s Hat Hut label release Oleo, which is built around an at times very straightforward cover of Sonny Rollins’ title composition. At times, because another of McPhee’s frequent partners, guitarist Raymond Boni sproings into the fray with a spree of spastic-intergalactic wah-wah, which leads the rest of the unit into a strategy of deconstruction of which Rollins himself would probably approve. I feel like I shouldn’t need to say it, but I will: one who puts merely a skimming ear to work like McPhee’s might come to the conclusion that the players are just making noise, that that’s easy, that if they really had to play conventionally, they’d find it rougher going. Therefore, one reasons, one doesn’t need to respect McPhee’s kind of music. Au contrair. Joe’s work far exceeds in imagination, diligence, close listening, physical energy, and challenge 90% of the music you’d read about in Downbeat or Jazz Times. And. And. McPhee does play tight and inside when he feels like it, and when it fits his chosen design, and when he does, on conventional terms, he’s a skilled and even easily recognizable player.
Joe McPhee is one of my biggest heroes. I hope he makes it past 100, and I hope I make it to his current age of 78 with a fraction of the vigor, curiosity, dedication, and imagination he puts into his work. If you’ve been curious about free music, his oeuvre ain’t a bad place to dip in. If you like folks who enjoy getting out of their lanes on a regular basis, or who aspire to get to know and work with as many people as they can, you’ll like him for sure. You can even start at his own beginning, with the legendary recordings Underground Railroad and Nation Time, the vintage of which you can likely guess from the titles and the quality of which is even more exciting when you consider he grew by leaps and bounds from those starting points.