A nearly full house at the Pizza Express Dean Street very much enjoyed the first night of alto saxophonist Charles McPherson ‘s residency last night. And so did I. Some of the band had met each other that day, but drummer Stephen Keogh is a shrewd judge of musicians, these are classy players, and they have already gelled well. Indeed there is more just than a hint in the air that these ingredients will have cooked into something very special and interesting by the time the residency ends on Saturday.
McPherson grew up in Detroit. In a recent inteview he says he remembers standing on the pavement as a youngster outside the legendary Bluebird club, listening out for the music played by the house band – Elvin jones on drums, brother Thad on trumpet, Paul Chambers on bass, Barry Harris on piano, Pepper Adams on baritone saxophone. He knew he was hooked, and just wanted to play. He went off to try his luck in the cauldron of New York, still as a teenager, in 1959. He says he spent three or four months trying to “get in the mix,” to get a gig with a name band. His opportunity came from Charles Mingus, and he didn’t look back.
Since 1978 McPherson has lived, more sedately and reflectively, in Southern California. Parker is an evident influence – McPherson was played on Clint Eastwood’s 1988 film “Bird” – but there are also many others. McPherson has a predilection for taking gentler standards like “Sweet and Lovely” or “Dancing in the Dark” and giving them a new undercarriage, often in the form of a funk shuffle bass riff. Someone is bound to have made the same joke already: I would call this process giving the tunes a McPherson Strut.
Charles McPherson has presence and warmth on stage. Chatting to the audience, microphone in hand, the opulent moustache gives him more than a passing resemblance to Sammy Davis Jr. He closed the first set with an invitation to Stephen Keogh to take the “I got Rhythm” changes “as fast as you can.” Keogh obliged. McPherson and Barry Green ‘s bright and persuasive right hand launched into a breakneck “Anthropology.” Pausing after the hostilities had ended, McPherson remarked that he had been watching Keogh, and that to play at that speed the drummer must somehow have moved on, to an “altered state of consciousness.” How very Californian, I thought.
But the remark seemed to linger, and the second set opener, Spring is Here seemed to transport McPherson himself into a different place. Happy for once with his mouthpiece position and reed alignment, he reached a golden, sunshine state where the cascades of altered and diminished chords really started to flow.
McPherson talks a lot in the interview about “melodic logic,” of “learning how to put together a line.” But he doesn’t just do theory. He clearly practises, and the long coherent lines really work. Stephen Keogh has played several times with McPherson, and there is a clear rapport between the two. The other two band members were new. Jeremy Brown was at his warm-toned best in Lover Man in the second set, showing the full compass of the bass, sonorous deep down on the E string, light and melodic way up in treble clef. Barry Green was inventive throughout, but his interweaving of falling thirds and chromatics in What is this thing called love stays particularly in the mind’s ear.
The vibe towards the end of the evening became gradually more imbued with the blues. McPherson finished one blues by holding on to an interminable, circular-breathed “out” note, before finally resolving it. This was something of a party trick: “I stopped smoking” was his pay-off line afterwards.
If there are still seats to be had, I would catch this band before it heads out of town.
The Charles McPherson interview, in four parts on Youtube, is HERE. Try part four, where he talks about marketing music, “the trappings”, Shakespeare and sex.