INTERVIEW: Stephen Keogh talks about Charles McPherson who will be 80 this year

Charles McPherson
Photo credit: © Antonio Porcar Cano

“I wonder what the world would be like if artists did what they really wanted, with no regard for money. I have, and you pay a price for that… I entertain the idea of being able to stay true to my artistic self and still make money and still be solvent. I know that might not happen, but I still hold out hope it will, even at my age…” Those are words of the great alto saxophonist CHARLES McPHERSON who will be 80 this year. Sebastian interviewed drummer STEPHEN KEOGH who runs the Global Music Foundation about some of the plans to celebrate the important birthday of a remarkable musician:

LondonJazz News: You have been working with Charles for quite a few years. How did all that get going?

Stephen Keogh: I got booked on a date with Charles in Sheffield in the ’80s. I loved his playing from the first note. The sound, the intensity, the supreme virtuosity, his rhythmic depth and soulfulness were awesome. After that on his subsequent visits to the UK he would ask for me to play. Over the years we started going to other countries in Europe and now the quartet tours a couple of times per year all around Europe. The more I’ve played with him over the years and the more, hopefully, I grow as a musician, the more I realise what an immense musician he is, and how much more there is to learn.
LJN: For people who don’t know his playing at all, what is it that really singles him out as special, what should they listen out for?

SK: Well along with the things I’ve already mentioned above, Charles’ original compositions are something special. He mentioned to me that he learned from Mingus’s writing and absorbed much from having worked with him for 12 years or more. In Charles’ own ballads and slow tunes you can hear that influence but yet they are very much Charles’ pieces. He has a masterful way of arranging standards; he’ll change the feel on one section and just put some hits in one or two places that bring new colours and freshness out of a song.

Hearing Charles play a blues is special. The amount of feeling is something to behold. He plays tempos that I’ve never played with anyone else… So fast. Sometimes you feel like it’s not physically possible but you let go into it and the energy of it makes the band lift off. It’s all fire and intensity but with an astonishing flow of melody. Then he’ll play an exquisitely tender ballad. I honestly can’t say there are one or two things because it’s pretty much everything, and it reaches out and touches people in the audience, which is so important.

LJN: What are you aware of that will be going on in the US this year to mark his 80th?

SK: In April there is a big event at the Lincoln Center, New York where they will jointly celebrate his 80th birthday along with McCoy Tyner’s (DETAILS).

LJN: And what tours/gigs have you got planned in the UK and in Europe?

SK: At the end of April we are at Jazzhus Montmartre Copenhagen for three nights (BOOKINGS) and then we’ll be in Spain for several concerts.

In July there is a tour, the highlights of which will be a headline concert  on 24 July at the San Sebastian Jazz Festival (WEBSITE) and we’ll be making a live album barring any technical hitches.

We are in negotiation for a concert with orchestra in Italy for a performance of “Bird with Strings”,

and then Charles will headline at GMF Barcelona ’19, part of the Mas i Mas Festival, on 31 July.

LJN: You are announcing his involvement In the GMF summer course 2019. Where is the course and what will be his role there?

SK: Charles will be with us for several days to be part of our musical community. He’ll be with the students, do a masterclass, play and teach and share his knowledge and wisdom with the students; all of us in fact. I think it’s very important, if not THE most important thing, for students and indeed musicians of any age to be around musicians like Charles. You could learn more over a coffee than you would in a year at school.

There is something way beyond all the practice, study and analysis – necessary though it is – that only comes from playing, being in contact and living through experiences with great musicians because they carry the history of the music with them. When you’re with someone like Charles you’re learning all the time, not only by playing and listening but also by osmosis, just as he did with Mingus and all the other greats over the years. You begin to feel and understand the spirit of the music in your whole being, and not just as an activity or performance. It’s something that is deep.

I would say to any musician that if you really want to meet, hear and learn from the source, then don’t waste any time and grasp the opportunity whenever possible.

The Charles McPherson Quartet
Publicity picture

LJN: What kind of character is he on the road?

SK: We have a great time on the road. It’s what we live for as musicians. To be out on the road with someone like Charles, and with Bruce Barth on piano and Mark Hodgson playing bass (this is Charles’s fixed quartet now on this side of the pond), it doesn’t really get any better. There are always unforeseen happening when one is travelling every day.

We have, as all other musicians well know, many late concerts followed by horribly early flights the next day. Charles is always the first person in the lobby. He seems to have an inexhaustible source of energy. I’ve listened to him talk at length about music, harmony, rhythm, history, the cosmos, science, philosophy, boxing and more, at all times of the day and night. We have plenty of laughs too.  

The most important thing is the music though, and it’s a privilege to be in that atmosphere, and share the bandstand with someone who has so much care and devotion, and who gives absolutely everything every time he plays.

Here is a very nicely filmed Interview with Charles, done last November at Jamboree, Barcelona, where he talks briefly about the early days:

LINK: Global Music Foundation

Categories: Features/Interviews

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