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Charles McPherson: Keeping the Faith

By Published: December 12, 2007
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AAJ: Your first albums on Prestige were under your own name. Mentor Barry Harris was on piano. Was this your actual working group, or was there just that chemistry which gave an organic aspect to the overall feel when in the studio?

Charles McPhersonCM: The first record I did with Barry it was his date, he's the boss. So I'm just doing what he wants and how he wants to do it. I had a real affinity with Barry musically, so anything he wanted to do with music was fine with me, generally. But you know he's ten years older than I am. Lonnie, I think, was on that date as well and other people, of course. It was Barry's date, his music, his arrangements; we just, of course, deferred to him.

My first record date under my name was Bebop Revisited (Prestige, 1964), with Barry on piano.

AAJ: Two of your earliest Prestige albums were live dates—Charles McPherson Quintet Live (Prestige, 1966) and Live at the Five Spot 1966 (Prestige, 1966)—featuring the same band. Was there a greater appeal to you in making live records?

CM: As it does now, in a way. A live date is more apt to capture the spontaneity and the real feeling of extemporaneous improvisation. Really what that supposedly means, and what you would like it to mean, is this element of spontaneity.

Live dates tend to have that ambience more than studio. Now studios are cleaner, more pristine. And perhaps more organized, so you are able to deal with the sound, and sound problems, and mics and that whole bit. Live dates are a little more problematic in that area, of course, but at the same time they do tend to have a certain electricity about them. The fact that the audience is there, and [that] you hear people. So its more organic so far as I'm concerned, and if everything is in place: you have a great group; the synergy is there (with the people you're playing with); the music is well rehearsed and well digested by everybody; the room is great; the piano is great; the audience is great; the acoustics in the room unto themselves are very good; everybody's happy; the engineers are happy; and everything is so relaxed that the players actually maybe forget, in a way, that they are recording, then that's great.

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Sources of Inspiration

AAJ: It seems like a generational thing that people of a certain age, when they cite their wellspring of improvisation they cite Bird, but then people of a different age will say Coltrane or Sonny Rollins.

CM: It is, but see, that is by way of Charlie Parker. You still hear Charlie Parker. It's just once you get away from it now you're starting to emulate people that emulate people that emulated. So you get these generations and you get far down. You get so far it's not direct anymore.

You've got to realize that all these people that are enamored of Charlie Parker, also there are these differences. Yet everyone is still who they are and they are a little different. It is almost as if you take—and this is the way evolution comes about artistically quite often or certainly within music—everyone learns from someone else. You take that which you learn, and you are influenced by this or that. Then, as you grow as an artist yourself or performer, hopefully you grow into your own way of doing things musically (and whatever else).


You think of John Coltrane for instance, he's a child of bebop. Coltrane was born in 1926; he's just six years younger than Charlie Parker. He's not twenty years younger than Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker was already a full-fledged genius, while 'Trane was six years younger and not nearly as good as Charlie Parker at that time.

Charlie Parker is like a big brother to people like Miles Davis, Coltrane. He's like a father figure to me but he's a big brother to those guys. He's only a couple, few years older than those people. So people like Sonny Rollins and Coltrane, they come up as people who are very influenced by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

When they add their own little thing to the language, like Sonny Rollins is different than 'Trane; so what he [Coltrane] got from Charlie Parker and what he did with it is different than what Sonny Rollins got from Bird and what he does with it. Because of your own individual person, [you] will tweak this or that. So it comes out a little differently. But they both have one common denominator and that is Charlie Parker.

Yet still 'Trane developed into what he did and Sonny Rollins is different. But it's like a family tree; they both go back to this. The farther back you go everybody's all connected up some way.

So here I am, I don't sound like Phil Woods, I don't sound like Cannonball. Cannonball doesn't sound like Lou Donaldson. But we all have one common denominator and that is Charlie Parker, along with 'Trane and Sonny Rollins and everybody else. Now Charlie Parker had Lester Young and Buster Smith and Louis Armstrong and whomever. Louis Armstrong had somebody, whoever it is; but everybody has somebody.

He [Charlie Parker] was one of the innovator guys. There have been a few but his influence was so seductive because he was so good in so many areas. Such a perfect player, and at such a young age. That's what is so amazing. The older I get the amazement is, "Wow this guy was so young and able to be this.

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East Coast/West Coast and Touring

AAJ: Eventually you moved from New York to the west coast. Did you initially find the social/artistic climate different and did it have any impact on your work?

CM: Yes, and it still is different. Maybe the difference is three thousand miles or something. It is different. The musicians in New York seem to, are much would be exactly what you would expect. Weather definitely effects temperament, and how people feel and what they do, when they do it. Back east it's a whole different vibe and it certainly reflects in the music. What is that? I would say there is a different kind of energy that east coast musicians seem to be involved with. They both have different energies. There is certainly a different temperament. I am not judging it whether good or bad; I am just saying that there is a difference.

CharlesAAJ: With almost no place allowing smoking now, air travel far less rarefied and all we know about the importance of eating right, has the nature of touring changed? Has it become easier but less fun?

CM: Touring is certainly better to play in places where there's no smoking or to be anyplace where there is no smoking. We all know its better for your health, but it feels better to play in an environment like that. It is easier to go from point A to point B. Not like when people were getting around on buses or trains. But it is expensive. Traveling with five musicians, and the overweight instrument charges and the heightened security makes it unpleasant.

For instance, if I were to take a group to Europe, where ten-fifteen years ago the bassist would take his bass—he would either buy a ticket to have a seat for the bass or a huge case that the bass could be in and be in the belly of the plane and get off he plane in Europe somewhere and go make the gigs—now the ticket for a bass is too expensive or just traveling intra-Europe on the small commuter planes it isn't really feasible to bring a bass fiddle. The bass players now have to rent a bass, so that is harder than it used to be. Some guys still travel with theirs or they use a rental that might be OK, but likely not a great instrument.

AAJ: When on the road do you bring your own band or use local pick-up ensembles for each city?

CM: Both. Sometimes I will bring my own group, but sometimes I might go as a single to Europe, for instance, and play with whomever. I might go to Holland and I'll play with Dutch musicians. Sometimes I might bring a group and tour, say through Italy. So it works both ways, but it is better to work with your own group.

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