“There’s a nostalgic element to it, but you can certainly revere somebody that's here right now as much as you can have reverence for the past. It definitely describes everything that I feel about the musicians I’ve worked closely with throughout my life, all of whom I respect musically and artistically.”
On his first release for Smoke Sessions Records, due out April 26th, McPherson certainly reveals why he’s been held in such reverence for the last 64 years. The album captures a scintillating live performance from Smoke Jazz Club, where McPherson is joined by his remarkable current group featuring trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong, and drummer Billy Drummond. The set is a showcase for McPherson’s gifts as both composer and soloist and bridges his deep and far-reaching exploration of the full jazz spectrum.
Reverence kicks off a yearlong series of live recordings celebrating the 25th anniversary of Smoke Jazz Club and the tenth anniversary of its record label, Smoke Sessions. McPherson’s preference for recording live was a major factor in launching this series. After an inspiring, post-pandemic week performing at the recently renovated and reopened Smoke back in November 2022, McPherson knew he wanted to capture that same atmosphere and energy on his next recording, so the decision to skip the studio and record live was a relatively easy one.
“It’s a perfectly sized, well-run club,” he says. “It’s just big enough to have some room for listening but just small enough to still have a personal intimacy. That’s the ideal combination. And both the label and the club are obviously run by people who love the music and are willing to take a chance on artists who are creative and believe in what they're doing.”
Born in Joplin, Missouri, McPherson spent his formative years in the rich jazz city of Detroit, where he was mentored by the late Barry Harris. His closest childhood friend was the future trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer; the two later played together with the iconic Charles Mingus, with whom McPherson would tour and record for more than a decade. McPherson and Hillyer lived just blocks from the famed Blue Bird Inn, a renowned jazz club where the house band included Harris, Pepper Adams, Paul Chambers, and Elvin Jones.
Reverence was born shortly after Barry Harris passed away in late 2021. Harris was a pivotal figure for McPherson, not just as a musician but as a person. In light of his recent passing, Reverence is particularly dedicated to his memory. “Barry was my mentor and my teacher for a long time,” McPherson recalls. “I owe a lot to him. He always told me that there was more to this music than just playing the horn – you actually have to know how to think to be able to do this well. In order to be hip in Detroit at that time you had to know about Bird, but you had to know about Schopenhauer, Miró, Gerald Massey, and Immanuel Kant as well. That opened a lot of doors for me.”
McPherson didn’t set out to undertake an explicit tribute project – there are no Harris compositions in the repertoire, and only the final track, “Ode to Barry,” was penned in homage to the great pianist and educator. But McPherson did set out with the high regard in which he holds Harris in mind and entered into the recording with a sense of reverence both for his longtime mentor and collaborator, as well as for the younger musicians whom he enlisted for the session.
“I really like the language of bebop, which allows for a broad range of expression,” he explains. “But I'm not a civilized bebopper – I'm a wild bebopper, and I might go anywhere from that jumping-off spot. I’m 84 years old now, so the core remains the language of bebop, but I do it in today’s world with today’s players.”
Reverence reconvenes the ensemble that recorded McPherson’s previous album, Jazz Dance Suites, and has cohered into a stellar working group over the last few years. Realizing that the quintet consistently achieved a unique chemistry during live gigs, he determined to make his next release a live album, a nod to the respect and, yes, reverence with which he esteems his current collaborators.
“I chose these players because they represent how I feel about jazz,” McPherson says. “The term ‘jazz’ covers a pretty broad umbrella, and there are a lot of different ways to play what we call jazz, even within the same style. So, when I hire younger players, I hire players who honor and care about the same things that I care about. The members of this band definitely understand the language of bebop, but they’re flexible and can go to a lot of other places as well.”
The album opens with the simmering “Surge,” which bristles with the tidal forces implied by the name and summons keenly focused solos from Stafford, McPherson, and Patton. “Dynamic Duo” winks at McPherson’s boyhood love of comic books as it spotlights the chemistry between Patton and Wong, who have worked together in Patton’s bands as well as with the Heath Brothers. “Blues for Lonnie in Three” has a playful nature, ideal for the lifelong friendship that McPherson shared with Hillyer.
“Ode to Barry” closes the album as a show of respect to Harris, painting a musical portrait of his unique personality. “Barry was an interesting figure because he was very smart and intelligent, but slightly melancholy,” McPherson describes. “There’s a mix of emotions that comes up when I think of him. He was a pensive, thoughtful person with a lot of depth, so I tried to capture his basic emotional makeup with the harmonic coloring of this tune.”
The set is rounded out by a pair of familiar standards: “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen classic, showcasing the warm tenderness of McPherson’s ballad playing in a quartet setting; and the yearning, nostalgic “Old Folks,” led by a wistful Stafford outing. McPherson chose both tunes, he said, simply because “I consider them beautiful and sophisticated. These tunes are written for adults, not for 12-year-olds.”
The title of Reverence may be intended to reflect the way that McPherson feels towards his late bandmates; it also vividly captures the deep respect felt towards the master saxophonist by his current bandmates – not to mention generations of jazz fans. More than six decades into a remarkable career, few command and deserve our reverence quite like Charles McPherson.