Renaissance Man of Sound: Joe McPhee’s Survival Unit III brings avant-garde jazz to Bond Chapel

John McPhee (Andy Newcombe/flickr)

John McPhee (Andy Newcombe/flickr)


Joe McPhee is a Renaissance man of sound. The 70-year-old horn and reed player’s versatility has made him one of the free music community’s most cherished members since he released his first recordings on his own label in the late 1960s. The idea of revolution has been crucial to McPhee’s prolific career, and appropriately, his music has been a radical force in avant-garde jazz. But he has also shown himself capable of overturning his own standards and learning from new collaborators. As a precursor to its appearance at the Umbrella Music Festival in the Loop, his group Survival Unit III (featuring Chicagoans Fred Lonberg-Holm and Michael Zerang) performs at Bond Chapel as part of the Renaissance Society’s music series.

Along with Peter Brötzmann, Ornette Coleman, and Evan Parker, McPhee is one of the legends of his musical generation, which redefined improvised music as a medium of dynamic energy, unbridled expression, and surprise. McPhee came to jazz surprisingly late in his life. Initially trained on the trumpet, he traveled to Germany with the U.S. Army’s band, and only in his early thirties did he discover the experiments in modal and out jazz being conducted by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. He taught himself saxophone and was soon recording music, with the funk-influenced free jazz of “Nation Time,” a tribute to political poet Amiri Baraka, appearing on his own independent label in 1970. His career was not a rocket ride to stardom, but rather a slow ascent boosted by a loyal listenership. Using grant money from the financial services company UBS, a Swiss fan named Werner Uehlinger founded HatHutRecords, a now successful imprint for avant-garde jazz and classical music, solely to make McPhee’s music available to his public.

McPhee has not relented for a minute since then. With incredible vitality, he has manned alto, tenor, and soprano sax, trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn, and less academic instruments like the Casio digital horn. He has been an active thinker, as well as a vibrant player, devising unconventional music theories and a series of guiding axioms for his own improvisation, which he called “Po Music”–a methodology for sounding out new “positive, possible, poetic” ways of approaching his instruments and creating sounds. He has crossed a wide range of musical idioms, from the bold out funk of his first album to fiery, untempered free jazz. McPhee has also experimented with electronic music as well, working with the great early electronic composer Pauline Oliveros and her Deep Listening Band.

This group’s goal was to explore how new sonic environments would affect their music, at one point recording at the bottom of a cistern. For his Bond Chapel performance, McPhee will likely bring not only his incredible sonic palette, but also a particular sensitivity to the idiosyncrasies of the unusual performance space. The University of Chicago’s gothic chapel is an unusual visual and aural environment for experimental music, and the recent performances the Renaissance Society has brought to the space have been welcome surprises in their incongruous pairing of the traditional and spiritual with music that moves forward and sounds out the unknown.

Fred Lonberg-Holm, the Chicago-area cellist joining McPhee, performed in the space during the Renaissance Society’s last round of concerts in the spring, while percussionist Michael Zerang, also from Chicago, has played in the Renaissance Society itself. The two are closely identified with the local avant-garde jazz scene and justly known as two of Chicago’s most unpredictable forces in free improvisation. Both Zerang and Lonberg-Holm approach their instruments with total abandon in their searches to develop new techniques and new sonic possibilities. The two have met McPhee in a musical setting before, as part of the Peter Brötzmann Tentet. This time, the scope is narrowed down to McPhee, Zerang, Lonberg-Holm, and the vaulted ceiling of Bond Chapel.
Bond Chapel, 1050 E. 59th St. November 9. Monday, 8pm. (773)702-8670. Free. renaissancesociety.org

1 comment for “Renaissance Man of Sound: Joe McPhee’s Survival Unit III brings avant-garde jazz to Bond Chapel

Comments are closed.