Ken Vandermark’s Topology Nonet ft. Joe McPhee : Impressions of Po Music


My next real encounter with Joe McPhee didn’t take place until almost 10 years after seeing him in Montreal, and 5 years after I had moved to Chicago. The Vandermark Quartet (with Kent Kessler, Dan Scanlan, and Michael Zerang) was invited to Canada to play a series of concerts in conjunction with the 1994 Vancouver Jazz Festival. Joe was on a similar tour at the same time, with a trio that included Lisle Ellis and Paul Plimley. We kept bumping into each other at different shows but due to scheduling conflicts it was never possible for me to hear this trio. I did finally get the nerve to introduce myself while our paths crossed and told Joe how much I loved his music. He was extremely gracious and asked me when I was performing with the quartet in Vancouver. When I told him, he said that he’d try and see one of our concerts. I never expected him to show up, but he did, and I asked Kent, Michael, and Dan to play “Goodbye Tom B.” with me, something we had never done before, but after I quickly explained the melody and idea they agreed. The fact that I had the audacity to play one of Joe’s pieces in front of him at that time startles me now, though then it seemed like the obvious thing to do. When the quartet finished our performance Joe came up to me and told me it was the first time he had ever heard someone else play one of his compositions.

Fate brought us together again a couple of years later, in a strange but fortunate circumstance. Eighth Day Music (one of many short lived record labels that cropped up in Chicago during the 1990s) pretty much organized a recording session out of the blue for Joe, Kent Kessler, and I on Valentine’s Day of 1996. When Joe and I went to pick up Kent Kessler that morning, he leaned out of his 2nd floor window and yelled, “Shit, I just woke up! Sorry! I’ll meet you there!” Things off to such an auspicious start, we got to the studio without Kent, set up our instruments, warmed up and waited. I was pretty much a nervous wreck. Joe must have known this, and certainly how much I revered his work, but he never once treated me any less than a peer. Once Kent arrived and we began the recording process it was all about music, and the session turned out to be one of those rare occasions when everything seems to fall into place (Kent’s unaccompanied arco bass solo on the album more than made up for his late entrance). The album came out in 1997 on Eighth Day in a rather half-assed fashion. Thankfully, Bruno Johnson reissued it on his Okkadisk label not long after. It was called A Meeting in Chicago, with a beautiful cover by the artist, Dan Grzeca. The night after the recording session the three of us played at the Empty Bottle, near the beginning of an amazing run of jazz and improvised music concerts that I helped John Corbett organize at that venue, a series which lasted 10 years, from 1996 to 2005. Joe played a solo set to a completely packed house that night, with 200+ in attendance. Incredibly, it was the first time he had performed in Chicago, and you could have heard a pin drop in that room. Afterward, Kent and I joined him for the initial concert of many that I’ve now played with Joe, most often in the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, but also in other configurations, primarily duo.

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