Freedom Fighters : Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark


JMP: When we play, we don’t verbalize much about what we do or how we do it. [to Vandermark] But listening to you talk, it’s like being inside my own head. Something important is the idea of sharing. It’s about the life we have, the time we have on this planet, which is not all that long. The things that are important to us become more focused, particularly as you get close to the end, and you get to know that you’re wasting a lot of time with some bullshit. Every time we’ve played together, without exception, it’s been about sharing — music, life, love and humanity.

KV: When music is really the most magical, it’s aural version of spending time with someone you really like being with, or just experiencing life in all its complexity. All the best music, improvised or otherwise, is an expression of those really complex things, things that are impossible to express in words. That’s why i think that a lot of musicians are inspired by other art forms. I love the paintings of Franz Kline. They had a retrospective here, and I walked into that room with all those black-and-white paintings. I said, I want to play like this!

JMP: The more we talk, the more I find we have in common. I had a very good friend who passed away in 1991 named Alton Pickens. He was an artist; some of his works are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. He had an accident, fell down some stairs — upshot was that he moved into my house for about eight years. He was really my mentor.

KV: I guess what frustrates me is when people think that we don’t consider the ramifications of what we do. As if we just play off the cuff, wake up and play whatever — that sense of “freedom” as doing whatever we feel like doing, like we don’t take it seriously, don’t examine it, don’t practice, don’t study. That’s so insulting. It’s not to say other people can’t have different opinions about it. But it’s frustrating to have outsiders think they know more about it than we do. I take it really seriously, and the musicians I play with take it seriously.

JMP: For a solo recording, I borrowed the title from Val Wilmer’s book, As Serious As Your Life. I take what I do and my music very seriously. Somebody wants to ask me how seriously, it’s like this gun is to your head — how fuckin’ seriously can I take it?! But at the same time [he puts the stuffed animal back on his head], there’s a platypus on my head. I don’t take myself very seriously at all, and I love to have a good time and laugh.


Joe McPhee uses a Selmer Balanced Action tenor with Otto Link 95/0 mouthpiece and soft Bari tenor reeds; his soprano is a Selmer Super Action 80 with a Selmer CL mouthpiece and Rico Royal #2 1/2 reeds. He plays a Vito alto clarinet with Vandoren mouthpiece. His pocket-trumpet is a Classic, and he plays a Couesnon flugel. McPhee’s valve-trombone is a German Hutl B-flat Special that was formerly owned by Clifford Thornton. He uses Bach mouthpieces for brass.

Ken Vandermark plays a Selmer Mark VI tenor with a Rico Royal metallite mouthpiece, a Buffet clarinet with a Paul Combs mouthpiece and a Leblanc bass clarinet with a Vandoren mouthpiece. He uses Rico Royal reeds, #2 on tenor and clarinet, #1 1/2 on bass clarinet. Vandermark prefers wide-bore mouthpieces. He is currently looking for a baritone sax.

Originally published in Downbeat Magazine, January 1999 Issue

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