Listening deep with Joe McPhee

After decades in the New York jazz underground, the musician is still discovering new things.

"Possible, poetic, hypothesis—it's all po."

Underground jazz legend Joe McPhee is listing a string of words connected through the phonetic sound "po"—a reminder, he says, of the creative possibilities of approaching the world from a slightly different angle. McPhee, 79, attributes the theory to the philosopher Edward De Bono, whose book Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity remains one of the musician's central influences.

"You're not in the direction you want to go, but you keep in mind what it is that you want to do. And what happens is you discover new things along the way," he says. "It just opens up some doors, some ways to look at things differently."

The concept encompasses a wide range of creative possibilities, but it sounds particularly thrilling when translated through McPhee's breath: He's been melting minds with his music since the late 1960s, approaching his saxophone and trumpet not as instruments per se, but rather as "sound-generators" and pathways to discovery. In addition to De Bono, he cites the late experimental musician Pauline Oliveros' method of deep listening as foundational to his practice. It was transformative, he says, "learning to listen with the whole self, not just with your ears."

Somehow, decades removed from those early mind-expanding influences, his work feels remarkably vital today—both for its radical sound and the broader resonance of his method. Catch him in conversation at the Central Library on Thursday night or live at the Bus Stop on Friday for a glimpse into that world.

"I don't know what [everyone else] is hearing, but I know where I want to go with it," he says. "I'm not going to be Coltrane or Charlie Parker or anybody like that, god forbid. I can only do what I can do and see what happens."

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