He began playing the trumpet at age eight, taught by his father, himself a trumpet player. He continued on that instrument through his formative school years and later in a U.S. Army band stationed in Germany, at which time he was introduced to performing traditional jazz. Clifford Thornton’s Freedom and Unity, released in 1969 on the Third World label, is the first recording on which he appears as a side man. In 1968, inspired by the music of Albert Ayler, he took up the saxophone and began an active involvement in both acoustic and electronic music.
His first recordings as leader appeared on the CJ Records label, founded in 1969
by painter Craig Johnson. These include Underground Railroad by the Joe McPhee Quartet (1969), Nation Time (1970), Trinity (1971) and Pieces of Light (1974). In 1975, Swiss entrepreneur Werner X. Uehlinger release Black Magic Man by McPhee, on what was to become Hat Hut Records
In 1981, he met composer, accordionist, performer, and educator Pauline Oliveros, whose theories of “deep listening” strengthened his interests in extended instrumental and electronic techniques. he also discovered Edward de Bono’s book Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity, which presents concepts for solving problems by “disrupting an apparent sequence and arriving at the solution from another angle.” de Bono’s theories inspired McPhee to apply this “sideways thinking” to his own work in creative improvisation, resulting in the concept of “Po Music.” McPhee describes “Po Music” as a “process of provocation” (Po is a language indicator to show that provocation is being used) to “move from one fixed set of ideas in an attempt to discover new ones.” He concludes, “It is a Positive, Possible, Poetic Hypothesis.” The results of this application of Po principles to creative improvisation can be heard on several Hat Art recordings, including Topology, Linear B, and Oleo & a Future Retrospective.
In 1997, McPhee discovered two like-minded improvisers in bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. The trio premiered at the Vision Jazz Festival in 1998 but the concert went unnoticed by the press. McPhee, Duval, and Rosen therefore decided that an apt title for the group would be Trio X. In 2004 he created Survival Unit III with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang to expand his musical horizons and with a career spanning nearly 50 years and over 100 recordings, he continues to tour internationally, forge new connections while reaching for music’s outer limits.
In 2012 he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Vision Festival
Recent AFA Performances:
June 5, 2020 On_Line Salon