Interview with Charles McPherson

Charles McPherson

I’ve had two lessons with Charles McPherson when on tour in San Diego. They have been utterly remarkable. The second one from last fall I taped: Thanks to Charles for allowing this transcription to be published on DTM.

This week Charles is playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola Thursday through Sunday. It is a must-see gig for lovers of the real bebop. 

Charles McPherson: Time! I’m talking about metronomic time. I’m not talking about aesthetic time. Just plain academic time. 160 on the metronome is 160. There is no subjectivity and there is no philosophy.

How you feel about 160: that’s dealing with nuance. How are you feeling in between the beat? That is the magic. That’s very, very subtle.

Many people think that how they commit to the metronomic beat is the only game in town. But in bebop, the game in between this beat and the next one is really the main game.

The gap between the beats is the moment of real creativity because once you do this [claps hands], it’s a done deal. The space before is the realm of thinking, possibility and the creative moment!

The real secret to improvising is to be alive in the space and not just alive here [claps hands].

We can look at the brain and you can see what activity is working at the moment. Now to the average player and even the good player too: if you could see brain activity, you’d see all this activity at the downbeats but in between the gaps, it would probably be flatline.  There’s nothing going on and then all of a sudden there is activity again. 

That ain’t right. 

The improviser has to be totally alive throughout the whole spectrum of a bar. Not just a downbeat of a bar, in a micro beat way not just a macro beats.

All the “ups,” “ands” the “a’s.”  If you take a whole bar and split it up you have: whole notes, half notes and dotted quarter notes, and quarter notes and eighth notes and sixteenths. Now when you slice them up into all of these little pieces, I say the consciousness of the improvising player should be very much alive on all of these little beats.  That means that one should be able to start a phrase on any of that and come out right down the pike.

There’s none of that, “I’m only alive when that next beat comes up…”

If I were to point to you and say “Play now!” you would be playing and you would have something to play. 

Ethan Iverson:  That reminds me of Charlie Parker.  When you transcribe Charlie Parker you see he constantly stops and ends at different places.

CM:  He does not care where he stops and most important is he does not care where he starts. That’s what is amazing.

EI: It comes from every corner.

CM:  Yeah, he can start from any spot and connect it down the pike.  He’s like a drunk man who is on a tight rope. He never falls. The accents make you feel like he could never come out right and he does. All the time. He’ll start anywhere. It would be the “and of  3” in a proceeding bar and make all of the connections seamlessly. He comes out right on chord tones and everything we know for melodic logic to happen.

This is what I mean. He is alive. He is not flatlining anywhere. Now that is some real freedom. That is some serious rhythmic freedom and some serious harmonic freedom and some serious melodic freedom. (That’s the Holy Trinity of Music: melody, harmony, and rhythm.)

The bebop part of it is this:  The best of them knew how to navigate through harmonic movement and connect stuff seamlessly. It did not have to be modal or  pentatonic.

They could do it with eight notes and they could do it with sixteenth notes.

EI:  What about triplets?

CM:  Triplets create a rhythmic connection that is good for the eighth notes.  It actually creates a certain amount of rhythmic tension. The feeling of three against four is an important feeling. Three and four going on at the same time. When you employ triplets and then play eighth notes right after that; it’s like you shot a bow and arrow. 

A player should always have the balance between tension and release in everything. It’s not all tension and not all release, it’s the balance. 

In rhythm there is supposed to be a certain amount of stuff that is alluding to tension and release. The balance is there, as opposed to rhythmically it being flat. You want your phrase to sound like it got shot from a bow and arrow. (Not like badminton!)

I’ve got a good way to practice this. You play a whole solo with eighth note triplets and don’t do anything else. At first it is going to be kind of funny to do. To play a triplet every now and then is one thing, but to play 32 bars of eighth note triplets is quite another thing.

You’ll find that in order to do that, every time that you start a new phrase it’s got to be in the world of triplet-ness. You’ll find that your vigil of where the one is and the beat is totally a higher level of vigil then what it is if you say to yourself  “I can just play eighth notes to this.” Because you are adhering to triplets and making them a discipline, they draw forth from you a higher level of rhythmic ability.

EI:  Barry Harris and Billy Hart both talk about the word “upbeat.”

CM:  That means to be alive! Alive through the whole beat. One has to be at home starting phrases on the upbeat and making them come out right. And to have enough of that going on in four bar phrases.  If you do that, then that is supplying the tension. If you play something on the upbeat, that is already tense, ’cause you’re doing something that is unexpected and it’s not on a strong side of the beat. Just starting there supplies tension from the get go.

A beat is a complete down and up. It’s the space in between. A lot of people just think a beat is just this [taps hand on table].  Here it’s just flat line. There’s nothing there.  Nobody lives there.  You can play music that way but it’s not that snake stuff.

Even most jazz players don’t really live in the space more than the [taps hand on table].   We can talk about race; white and black. There is only a handful of players, black, white, Chinese,  Man, Woman, green, yellow, purple that can really navigate like that.

So you have Elvin Jones and you got a young professional drummer. There’s a difference. They both play drums and they are both playing four-four.  The way that Elvin Jones is going to navigate these accents is totally different from the young professional. Young professional is gonna play it in a straight line. Which is good. That’s OK cause its gonna get you there. 

But Elvin is playing like Michael Jordan going down the court.  Now you can get down the court in a straight line, or you can go down the court like Michael Jordan which means he is pivoting all over the place in unexpected spots and faking people out. They thought he was doing this, and he pivoted and did that. They are all over there on the floor and he is over here making the basket.

We can equate Michael Jordan’s pivots with the accents of a drummer. Elvin Jones is Michael Jordan. It’s not a race thing, it’s a rhythm thing. There’s only a handful of people who feel time like that. When you got that, it’s kind of like listening to Tito Puente.

EI:  Does the word “Clave” relate to bebop?

CM:  I must admit that I don’t know enough about that music as I should.  A lot of jazz people — including drummers — don’t know enough about that stuff.  There’s a difference between 2-3 and 3-2 clave.  When you play a gig with those cats and you mix that up,  they will let you know right away.

I think most jazz is a particular version of the clave.  I’m not sure which one.  A lot of the heads, one of those works more than the other.

The thing about jazz and the way a drummer functions in a jazz rhythm section; the way he is parlaying accents and distributing them between his limbs is similar to a timbale player. Instead of having one trap drummer, they have several drummers taking care of certain things. Bongos are doing this, the congas are doing something else…The trap drummer is a new invention and he is performing the function of several people. 

EI:  Charlie Parker could play with Mario Bauza because his rhythmic perception fit in with that situation.

CM:  Rhythmically what Charlie Parker did fits with anything. His syncopation and how he is thinking about tension and release works perfectly with that kind of music.

People play differently. Some hear things more in a straight line. Charlie Parker represents the more serpentine approach. Miles Davis, as great he is, sometimes is more straight.

There’s a good a example with two different tunes. Miles Davis is the one who wrote “Donna Lee,”  based off the changes of “Indiana.”  It’s still a great tune, but it is not quite the same thing that Bird and Dizzy had at that time, it is a little more straight.

[Sings the melody to “Donna Lee.”]

It’s a long line of eighth notes.

OK, look at Charlie Parker’s tune.  Any one of them …

[Sings “Moose the Mooche” and emphasizes the accents and the syncopation.]

Look at that…That’s Michael Jordan.

This ain’t Michael Jordan. It’s beautiful but not Jordan: [Sings “Donna Lee.”]

This is:  [Sings a montuno.]

In Afro Cuban everything they are doing is that. The bass players are on the “and” of  2 and the downbeat of four. They are never on one. It sounds like they are in seven and it’s just 2/4!

You listen to them and you say “Man what is that?” and they say,  “Oh it’s just 6/8, 2/4 or 4/4.” It’s because where they are choosing to accent.

[Sings Charlie Parker blues “Bird Feathers.”]

If I did not put a melody to that and just played the rhythm to it, I’d sound like a great drummer. 

You see when Bird wants to play with the Afro Cuban cats….Bird was already that.

He did not have to change anything.  Can you imagine Miles playing with an Afro Cuban group?

EI:  I guess Sonny Rollins was the guy.

CM:  He was the closest. He was next. I don’t even know if Coltrane was quite like that.  Trane’s actually straighter. He was wonderful but he did not quite have the corners. If he had the corners that Sonny Rollins had in 1957 and Sonny Rollins had the harmony that Trane had…that’s the way you’d beat both of them. 

Could you imagine playing “Countdown” the way Sonny Rollins would have played “Countdown?”  [Laughter] That’s a whole different kind of “Countdown.”

EI:  Lester Young comes to mind: how did he link to Bird?

CM:  Lester Young is the first Bird.  No Lester Young, no Bird. 

And Buster Smith.  I have heard Billy Eckstine say that Bird was such an amalgamation of so many players that you can’t pick any of them out.  It’s mixed up in there and he has his own thing and it came out the way it did.  The most notable stuff would be Lester Young and Buster Smith. I heard Buster on a record and Bird really got a lot of stuff from him. That one record that documents him, he was already an old man, but you can hear how Bird comes from that  From what I heard there’s also Chu Berry and Coleman Hawkins and a lot of other people. Including Louis Armstrong.  It’s all mishmashed and there Bird is.

EI:  It seems to me Louis Armstrong has that “Michael Jordan” stuff.

CM:  Yeah, he did. He just did not play as many notes as Charlie Parker but the accents are falling like that. Also there is the real gift of melody. 

When a player plays, you have several choices within the chord.  There are a few notes that are right and you have these choices but to eke out the best three or four, sequence-wise;  that is what gift of melody is. There’s a difference between the right notes and the best notes.  The best notes also have something to do with “when.” ‘Cause a note is a note.  A D natural is  D natural… but it being here as opposed to there and how it is phrased and the rhythm of it, makes all of the difference.

EI:  You told me something last time about how the changes are there but you don’t play the changes. 

CM:  Yes!  You’re supposed to be thinking melodically. It’s not like the changes are giving you anything. It’s the melody notes that you hear out of them. You can’t be backwards with that.

Thirds are always melodic. In a way they are the most melodic interval. Thirds are the beginning of creation. Scales are just there, but thirds are melodic and harmonic.

If you navigate in thirds, getting to chord tones by threading thirds in a million different combinations, you will always be melodic, not just playing scales. For a beginning jazz student, I might have them play a whole solo in thirds. It will stop them from being too scalar.

[I sit at the piano for 20 minutes and play along with Jamey Aebersold tracks of “All the Things You Are” and “The Song is You.” Charles coaches me on adding triplets to my line, playing the accents harder, laying back more on the beat.]

[We sit back down on the couch.]

CM: Think of the quarter notes not as marching but as ice-skating. Elvin Jones said, “I don’t think of 4/4, I think of 8/8…and the person who told me to think that way was Charlie Parker.” Elvin told that to my son.

If you are subdividing, your beat is wider. Also those subdivided beats become sentences you skate through, not just four beats goose-stepping in a march.

Another metaphor: You want it to be tai-chi, not karate.

Even if it is fast, the real bebop players skate through it all.

There’s variety in everything. Another thing you could practice is changing your touch at the piano depending on the kind of phrase you are playing. It’s not “one size fits all.”

In the end, of course, it becomes organic. You forget about all the practice when you actually play a gig.

EI: The word “asymmetrical” might be important.

CM: Yes! Symmetry is boring. Or, at least, “asymmetry” is the creative aspect of if. Some people can really snake, can really be serpentine.

Some great players are really great but don’t have that snake. Barry Harris has it.

EI: Cedar Walton is a great bebop pianist but it’s not that asymmetrical.

CM:  Right. I love Cedar but he’s not Barry or Bud Powell when it comes to that.

EI:  Tommy Flanagan?

CM: Tommy is so creative! Maybe even more creative than Barry. But he’s a little on top with the beat. Barry is more right in the center.

The other guy who really has the beat from Barry’s generation is Sonny Clark. They are really rare in a way, digging into the time like that.

EI:  Red Garland?

CM:  Yeah, but Red —and Wynton Kelly too…and Bill Evans too— they have a real dotted-quarter and sixteenth kind of swing. Not when it gets real fast of course, but at medium tempos there’s that kind of hiccup in the line. Barry, Sonny Clark, Bud, Bird, Sonny Rollins, Trane: they play more like even eighth notes, and that’s how I want to play too.

[Picks up his horn and demonstrates an exaggerated swing like Red and a smother eighth like Barry.]

EI:  I guess if you are playing a more straight eighth note it can grind in a nice way against the implied triplet.

CM: Especially for horn players, if you accent the upbeat note too much in the line, it can shorten the second eight note into a sixteenth.

EI:  Joshua Redman told me something like that, that at lessons with beginning saxophonists he usually had to tell them to stop trying to swing the second eighth too much, that it was too herky-jerky.

CM:  Exactly. I want to play more evenly, although still with the accents and placement of course.

One way to practice getting asymmetrical is connecting the melody notes of a standard in surprising ways. Make yourself get from there to here with creative inspiration. From any part of the original melody, go! until the next part of the melody. The highest example of that is Charlie Parker with Strings. They just released some more alternate takes and it is just unbelievable, his melodic inspiration. It doesn’t matter where he is in the melody, he joins things together in new ways. That’s art!

[I didn’t think what Charles was talking about was all that hard, but when he asked me to do it on “All the Things You Are” and “The Song is You,” I found it essentially impossible. This concept is now a regular part of my practice. After Bird it seems like John Coltrane has this the most together: Listen to Trane’s melody statement on any slow or medium tempo standard.]

EI: What about playing on modal music?

CM: With the modal concept you don’t need to change anything. In fact, this is where rhythm really comes in. If you can play a lot of syncopations, you will have a real advantage over a modal player who doesn’t know that stuff. Same with playing thirds instead of scales.

After all, John Coltrane really digested bebop before he played modal. In fact, we forget that he was only six years younger than Charlie Parker. He was like a younger brother, seeing all that stuff live. There’s even that photo of him looking at Bird.

Barry Harris doesn’t like modal music, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it. If he wanted to, he certainly could.

EI: Ok, last question: What about the blues?

CM: The real vibe of the blues — a slow blues, not an uptempo blues — is a state of reverence. The Greeks had different words for different kinds of love. “Eros” is sexual love.  “Agape” is more how you feel about God.

In the blues, even though there’s plenty of suggestive lyrics, the feeling underneath is more Agape. There’s a longing towards God. You have to be in that kind of space to play the blues well.