Charles McPherson Straddles The Artistic Fence


Charles McPherson researched what music at the time of King Solomon might have sounded like for the saxophonist’s latest recording, Jazz Dance Suites (Chazz Music).

(Photo: Tariq Johnson)

In the course of a career that has found him performing with the likes of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis, bebop master Charles McPherson has spent plenty of time on concert stages. Usually, he shares that space with other musicians, but in recent years, the alto saxophonist has found himself performing with dancers from the San Diego Ballet, a collaboration documented on his Jazz Dance Suites (Chazz Music).

“I’m a resident composer with the San Diego ballet,” McPherson said over the phone from his home in the coastal California city. “My daughter is one of the solo dancers with this company; I got involved with the company because of my daughter, and also a grant that was available. So, we partnered up: me, the ballet and the choreographer, Javier Velasco.

“I’ve been with them for a few years now. I’ve written two suites, and we’ve performed them ... ”

“Five, dear. Three suites,” said a woman’s voice in the background.

“Oh, um, three suites,” McPherson said. “OK, here’s Lynn, my wife. She knows more about me than I know myself. You know how that works.”

“I’m sorry to butt in,” she said, taking the phone, “but I hear Charles, and it’s like once he does something, he’s off to the next thing. It’s been a five-year relationship [with the ballet]. Three original suites, and two arrangements.” One of the arrangement projects is called Gershwin Divertissement, and the second focuses on Charlie Parker. “They weren’t able to do [the Parker ballet] yet, but hopefully they’ll do it in October,” she said. “Anyway, that’s the history of the ballet company involvement. Here he is.”

“I should just let her do the interview,” McPherson teases as he gets back on the phone. “I can just play the part of Mr. Magoo, over in the corner.”

Still, his attachment to San Diego always has been because of family, having moved to the West Coast city in 1978 to look after his mother.

“I am an only child,” he said. “My mother was getting older, and I started getting concerned about her living by herself.” He had been in New York, booked to play on the sessions that became Charles Mingus’ Something Like A Bird album. “The very next day after doing that date with Mingus, I moved to California. And not to stay, but I ended up staying.”

Moving from jazz composition to writing for dance was a different kind of leap for McPherson. At first, he was concerned about writing things that would support the dancers’ movements, but Velasco told him not to worry. “He said, ‘You just write. I will do the choreography,’” McPherson recalled. “’You write exactly what you feel, and I’ll do the body stuff with the dancers.’

“Now, writing for dancers is a little bit different,” he added. Although McPherson and his group improvise, the dancers do not, so there need to be audible signposts throughout each work that the dancers can use as cues. “They’re doing the same thing over and over again, and the cues, what they listen for, are telling them what to do with their feet and legs and arms. So, you have to have certain very concrete and very definite things happening in the same places all the time, and yet still have the improvisational aspect of it. You’re straddling the artistic fence a little bit.”

“As a dancer, it’s most artistically fulfilling when you’re moving to something that really speaks to your artistic soul and spirit,” Camille McPherson, the saxophonist’s daughter, said by phone a day later. Having grown up listening to jazz, and particularly to her father’s music, she has a natural and long-nurtured connection to the music. Even so, there are special challenges in dancing to live jazz.

“You have to be really in tune with the musicians, because they’re jazz musicians,” she said. “If you’re playing for dance, especially ballet that’s choreographed, you really have to be consistent. Jazz musicians usually have a ton of freedom, and they don’t have as much freedom when they work with [dancers]. But at the same time, it’s important that we are able to adapt to them, too—just be aware of their energy, their tempos.”

Song Of Songs, perhaps the most unusual piece on Jazz Dance Suites, finds the saxophonist inserting Middle Eastern modalities into the jazz vocabulary. And “Love Dance”—the opening number, based on the Old Testament’s Song Of Solomon—is a story of unrequited love told from a woman’s perspective and features Lorraine Castellanos singing in Hebrew.

“I did a little homework on that,” McPherson said. “I wanted to listen to ancient Hebrew music. You can find that online, if you YouTube it.” He wanted to listen to the music’s scales and tonalities to better understand what music at the time of King Solomon might have sounded like.

“My approach to this particular suite was not to Xerox ancient Hebrew music, but just glean enough nuance,” he said. “I didn’t want to clone it. It’s going to be a hybrid anyway, because I’m going to add the jazz sensitivities.”

Indeed, hearing McPherson’s searing alto work its way through these Hebraic scales adds a sensual frisson to the music that neatly mirrors the sexual desire of the lyrics.

Similarly, having to respect the structural elements of writing for dance led the saxophonist to do things compositionally that wouldn’t normally arise when writing for his quintet. For instance, the dramatic structure of Song Of Songs inspired him to recapitulate material from “Love Dance” in the closing “After The Dance,” to provide an audible connection to the beginning and end of this tragic love story.

“I wouldn’t do that writing just for a regular bebop configuration,” McPherson said. “This is what I mean by ‘thematic writing,’ and being aware of something other than just the notes and chords. It makes me more in touch with the emotional aspect of human beings.” DB

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