Charles McPherson live at PDX Jazz Festival

 The PDX Jazz festival is happening this month here in Portland. It seems the number of national acts was significantly scaled back this year, probably a common trend these days. Don Lucoff recently took over as the director of the festival and seems to be running things a bit differently. Don seems to think that every performance should have a theme. Maybe it's from his years of doing promo work, or maybe it's just that he wants to feel like he's actively 'artistically directing' the musicians. For example he asked George Colligan to make the theme of his performance 'the music of Andrew Hill'. This was George's first big show after moving to town and I would guess that, although George enjoys Andrew Hill's music, he wouldn't consider Hill to be an influence on his playing.

  Was Lucoff thinking that Portland listeners would be more likely to come to see George play if they thought there would be some Andrew Hill music involved? Colligan is a prolific composer in his own right and I'm sure he would have much preferred to play his own composition (which he ultimately ended up doing), rather than Hill's music. Don suggested themes to many of this year's festival performers. Some of this year's themes were: 'The Lure of the Jazz Lyric', 'Classically Carmen', 'For Portland Only', and 'PDX Afro-beat Breakdown'.  It whole idea just seemed pretty forced to me. When you let marketing considerations dictate the choice of material the musicians play on the shows that you book then you are limiting the freedom of the musicians to choose what kind of material they play, and ultimately the degrading the quality of the performances. Let the musicians dictate the material that they feel will be the strongest representation of what they do. They know what kinds of tunes they sound best playing. Let the theme of the festival and of each performance just be 'The best possible music that each performer can present'. Why try to shoehorn players into the shoes of the Jazz masters?  I do however think that bringing in a seasoned Jazz PR pro managing the PDX Jazz Festival was a smart move. Enough with the themes though.

 The performance I was looking forward to the most was Charles McPherson's 'Tribute to Prez (the show was on President's day after all) and Bird'. Isn't every one of Charles' shows a tribute to Bird really? It wasn't a stretch, but why ask Charles to limit his choice of material to tunes that Bird or Prez played? The house was packed, but they were there to hear Charles, not because they were hoping to hear Lester Leaps in or Star Eyes.

 If I had to choose one favorite living Jazz saxophonist it would be Charles McPherson, no contest. I first heard him when I was still a teen and I remember being totally floored by his playing. First of all Charles has and incredibly beautiful and huge alto sound, with the best qualities of Bird's tone. The next thing you notice is his malleable time feel. He just floats on top of the time, constantly shifting between different metric modulations and then occasionally drops into to some extremely hard swinging 8th note lines.  Actually, 'metric modulations' isn't even the best way to describe what Charles does because it sounds so much more organic than that. A more accurate way to describe what Charles does with time would simply be bad-ass. I don't know of anyone else who does what he does with time.

 Charles doesn't leave a lot of space, and I mean that in a good way. Let's just say that if he were paid by the note he'd be a very wealthy musician by now. His concept is kind of like a Bebop version of Trane's 'sheets of sound'. Charles is constantly coming at resolutions from different directions, circling around changes like a swarm of angry hornets. From what I can tell, he seems to be using some of Barry Harris' harmonic concepts, including lots of diminished substitutions (like Trane did in his Sheets of Sound period). He has a classically Bebop vocabulary, but he is definitely applying a lot post-bop harmonic innovations and chord substitutions in his approach. I even heard some lines from Slonimski's book sever times during the evening. One thing about Charles' approach is that he doesn't hold back, he goes for it all the way. I love when players are like this. I want to hear someone really go for the gusto, balls out. Forget sounding clean and controlled. I want careening and out of control. I want to hear some carnage, some cracked altissimo notes, some collateral damage! Charles is raw, but he certainly still sounds polished. The beauty of his sound seems to allow him to get away with the wildly aggressive and dense playing he puts out.

 I had a chance to talk to McPherson before his set at Jimmy Mak's. He told me that he was playing on a modern hard rubber Meyer 6. Nothing special really. I've heard that Charles is always experimenting with different pieces. Last time he was playing in Portland I think he was playing on an older Meyer, maybe a Meyer Brothers or a NY Meyer. He was still using a Vandoren Optima ligature this time. When I heard him last I was amazed at how big his sound was. I just couldn't see how he could be getting such a huge sound playing a Meyer 5 or 6, so I had to try the ligature that he was using. What else could it be? He isn't a really big guy, so how did he do it?! I ordered myself an Optima ligature as soon as I got home....and...what do you know, it sucked. Didn't make my sound any bigger, just a little brighter.

 Before the PDX show Randy sat with Charles and had a 'conversation' (thanks to Don and actually a good idea). Charles talked about the fact that he thinks of time not as something to 'play with', rather as something to 'play against'. This idea isn't as common among players and educators as you might think. Many teachers try hard to impress on students the need to always 'lock in' to the time. McPherson creates a high degree of rhythmic tension by floating out of time, but he always comes back 'inside' and swings his ass off just long enough for his listeners to catch their breaths. Then he's off like a Bebop banshee again. The late Jimmy Mosher, one of my first teachers, was one of the few saxophonists that had a time feels as elastic as McPherson. That is not surprising because McPherson was one of Mosher's biggest influences, another was Charlie Mariano, who also had a loose time feel. I posted some great bootlegs of Jimmy Mosher's live shows a while back.

 I bootlegged McPherson's set with my Zoom digital recorder. I was sitting at a table that was basically right in front of the stage, so the recording came out pretty well. Charles played six tunes, which were all crushing. I asked him for his permission to post the recording here and he suggested that I post a few tunes, rather than the entire set. I choose his renditions of I'll Remember April, Embraceable You, and Cherokee. I also recorded McPherson's conversation with Randy Porter, which is quite interesting. The local rhythm section Charles used is Randy Porter on piano, Tom Wakeling on bass and Alan Jones on drums.


Charles McPherson live at Jimmy Mak's- PDX Jazz Festival 2/20/12

Charles McPherson's web site
Charles McPherson interview
YouTube interview from San Diego Jazz Profiles- part 1
YouTube interview from San Diego Jazz Profiles- part 2
YouTube interview from San Diego Jazz Profiles- part 3
YouTube interview from San Diego Jazz Profiles- part 4


Scooby said...

Fantastic! I love that Charles is shaped by bop but not constrained by it.

Thanks to you (and Charles) for posting these tracks.

allkeys said...

Thanks a lot for the wonderful post and the music.
C.McPherson is one of my favorite,
Great thoughts on his playing

Anonymous said...

I imagine it's fair to say that Pepper Adams is another with that approach - as described, above - to time.
But, yes, it's true - McPherson will place it anywhere he wants, and then "land it smack in the middle" with a dramatic impact.
I understand from speaking with musicians who worked with Dexter (in fact in the later years), that he'd stay so far behind the beat for so long (requiring the rhythm section to stick to their guns and almost "not listen to him"), but then catch up, gradually, finally aligning himself with where the time was all along - and that that moment, when it arrived mid-set, was enough to exhilerate, thrill and inspire enthusiastic recollection, fully these 30 years and more later (different again, though, to what you're describing with McPherson, and I'm also, now, ascribing to Adams).