Charles McPherson, with his daughter Camille, says, “It’s very hard to come up with a fresh melody that isn’t banal or pedestrian.”
Saxophone icon Charles McPherson unveiled his latest album Jazz Dance Suites on his own Chazz Mack Music label on September 24. It’s his 30th effort as a leader.
The album is dedicated to his ballet-star daughter Camille, and the music was originally the result of a collaboration between McPherson and the San Diego Ballet’s artistic director Javier Velasco.
It turns out that the composition process for this session was quite distinct from the typical jazz recording. “Well, it is a little different,” explains McPherson, “because I’m accustomed to writing for instruments in the traditional setting. Writing for dance involves being very careful about the structure. The musicians get to improvise in certain areas, but the dancers are not improvising ever. They’re listening for certain cues they need to hear. So you have to be very definite with the tempos when you are writing longer forms. There is such a thing as too fast, you know? But it’s hard to be too slow.”
McPherson stressed that melody writing was imperative. “The more melodic you are, the more the information is understood. On an aesthetic level — it’s very hard to come up with a fresh melody that isn’t banal or pedestrian — it’s very easy to be dissonant or non-melodic, but you have to dig deep for a melody that’s new and original.”
The new album features a mix of New York heavyweights (it was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey) with long-time pianist Randy Porter and San Diego vocalist Lorraine Theresa. The opening suite “Song of Songs,” is based on the Old Testament story Song of Solomon.
“I kind of knew the Bible version,” McPherson commented. “The one thing that really comes across is that it’s about unrequited love. A young woman is in love with King Solomon — but it never materializes. So I needed a female voice, obviously, and Lorraine has a gorgeous timbre, you know? She’s not a belter, she isn’t going to blow the walls down. She has a very delicate, beautiful sound. I heard her in my head when I was writing it, and I knew her voice would work.”
Thousands of classic jazz records were recorded at Van Gelder Studio, and McPherson’s new album has a singular, almost golden sound quality to it. “A lot of people think this is the best sound I’ve ever gotten on a record. I recorded in the main room along with the bass and piano, and I didn’t use headphones, which I don’t like anyway. Everything about that room is designed for the sound to be wonderful. So I didn’t need to use any electronics or anything.”
McPherson’s wife Lynn co-wrote two of the tunes and acted as artist management alongside myriad other responsibilities. I was curious as to why they chose to self-release, rather than shop for a label. It turns out that the project was just too personal to turn it over to an outside party.
“It’s a legacy project,” she said. “We felt that Charles was going to be leaving this really to Camille. All of this music was composed for and inspired by Camille. And we wanted to really, really, do it right — not give up control to anybody else. And we’re really glad we did it that way, because we got to do everything exactly the way we wanted.
“We did have some help in the form of a wonderful sponsor, (executive producer) Joann Clark. She underwrites the Jazz Series at the San Diego Ballet, and she put in a nice chunk of money, because she wanted it done right as well. She’s a huge jazz fan and a huge fan of Charles. So it was great to have her on board.”