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Joe McPhee

Since his emergence on the creative jazz and new music scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Joe McPhee has been a deeply emotional composer, improviser, and multi-instrumentalist, as well as a thoughtful conceptualist and theoretician. 

McPhee’s first recordings as leader appeared on the CjR label, founded in 1969 by painter Craig Johnson . These include Underground Railroad by the Joe McPhee Quartet in 1969, Nation Time by Joe McPhee in 1970, and Trinity by Joe McPhee, Harold E. Smith and Mike Kull in 1971. 

By 1974, Swiss entrepreneur Werner X. Uehlinger had become aware of McPhee’s recordings and unreleased tapes. Uehlinger was so impressed that he decided to form the Hat Hut label as a vehicle to release McPhee’s work. The label’s first LP was Black Magic Man, which had been recorded by McPhee in 1970. Black Magic Man was followed by The Willisau Concert and the landmark solo recording Tenor, released by Hat Hut in 1976. The earliest recordings by McPhee are often informed by the revolutionary movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; for example, Nation Time is a tribute to poet Amiri Baraka and Joe McPhee & Survival Unit II at WBAI’s Free Music Store, 1971 (finally released as a Hat Art CD in 1996) is a sometimes anguished post-Coltrane cry for freedom. 

During the 1990’s, McPhee finally began to attract wider attention from the North American creative jazz community. He has since been performing and recording prodigiously as both leader and collaborator, appearing on such labels as CIMP, Okkadisk, Music & Arts, and Victo. In 1996, 20 years after Tenor, Hatology released As Serious As Your Life, another solo recording (this time featuring McPhee performing on various instruments). McPhee also began a fruitful relationship with Chicago reedman Ken Vandermark , engaging in a set of improvisational dialogues with Vandermark and bassist Kent Kessler on the 1998 Okkadisk CD A Meeting in Chicago. The Vandermark connection also led to McPhee’s appearance on the Peter BrotzmanChicagoOctet/Tentet three-CD box set released by Okkadisk that same year. As the 1990s drew to a close, McPhee discovered two like-minded improvisers in bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen- TRIO X. 

"He is a stellar improviser, relishing his sound materials so caringly and for so long, the kind of player that invites you to really step outside of whatever mix you're and think and feel for a while." Hank Shteamer, Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches 

Featured releases

Two totally infectious sets from Decoy - the trio of John Edwards, Steve Noble and Alexander Hawkins - reunited with pocket trumpet and saxophone player Joe McPhee on the closing night of his four day residency at Cafe OTO. In the eight years between the recordings which make up ‘AC/DC’ and their last release ‘Spontaneous Combustion’, Decoy and each of its members have been practicing individually at the very top of their form. Coming together again in such celebratory circumstances and in the good company of a fantastic crowd set the scene for a very special night.  As they begin, Alexander Hawkins casts a needling surface between his Hammond organ and John Edwards’ loose splatters and slaps of low end bass. McPhee skitters over them with his pocket trumpet by way of introduction; Steve Noble strikes his rims in anticipation. The mood in the room is that of a rock band reformed, of a certain number of “boys” being “back in town”. The first set sees moments of frenetic free jazz peel off into weirdo soul territory and when switched to saxophone halfway through, McPhee’s romantic lyricism is utterly beautiful. When a groove sets in, Hawkins’ B3 ascension in harmony with an ever powerful Edwards-Noble rhythm section sees the room thicken and swirl to the point of giddiness. There is one unreal part at 22:22 where we’re sure you can hear Edwards’ bass vocalising.  Regrouped for a second set, Steve Noble’s metallic textures meld with detuned arco bass to create an unholy atmosphere, ripe for Hawkins to play out the eerier end of the Hammond. When McPhee sounds a sax motif the band catches it quickly and it’s soon wickedly morphed and stretched by each player, recurring to absurdity in a stoned out funk free for all.  The whole recording bleeds enthusiasm and joyful imagination and is a brilliant document of an unforgettable evening. Decoy are a limitless band who play nowhere near enough. We cannot attest to them any more: Book them, buy this, go and see them if you can.   --- John Edwards / bass Alexander Hawkins / hammond b3 Joe McPhee / pocket trumpet, alto sax, voice Steve Noble / drums --- Recorded live at Cafe OTO by Shaun Crook on Friday 10th May, 2019. Mixed and mastered by James Dunn. Artwork and layout by Oliver Pitt. Photos by Dawid Laskowski. Printed in an edition of 1000. OTOROKU023CD. 

Decoy with Joe McPhee – AC/DC

Past events