Divinely Inspired Music and Humanity-Inspired Jokes Reign in Return of KSDS’s Jazz Live
By Matt Silver
The Charles McPherson Quintet feat. Gilbert Castellanos at San Diego City College's Saville Theatre in the return of Jazz Live, Aug. 8, 2023. Photo by Larry Redman.
“Thank you so much for being here,” Charles McPherson said with seeming earnestness as the rest of the band walked backstage for a set break. “Without your support [drawn out pause for effect], we’d probably be doing the exact same thing.”
Ninety-nine percent of musicians or performers of any kind would have reflexively trotted out the anodyne, “Without your support, none of this would be possible,” which maybe at one time made people feel seen and appreciated but has become just another vaguely well meaning, obligatory part of the artist-audience exchange.
Not Charles McPherson.
When McPherson speaks—through his mouth or his saxophone—it’s to say something. The 84-year-old alto sax master said volumes this past Tuesday night at Saville Theatre on the campus of San Diego City College. Leading a quintet comprising a rock solid and occasionally brilliant rhythm section of Sam Hirsh (piano), Rob Thorsen (bass), and Tyler Kreutel (drums), and featuring Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet, McPherson played two 55-minute sets in front of a full and vocal crowd hungry for the first edition of KSDS’s Jazz Live concert series since before Covid.
A couple of things were confirmed almost as soon as instruments began issuing notes.
One: McPherson, at 84 years old, is in GREAT shape, both musically and otherwise. His ideas are sharp, his loads of technique haven’t diminished, and maybe most remarkably, he was maximally engaged—even, and perhaps especially, when he was not playing. McPherson’s interaction with pianist Sam Hirsh, some 50 years his junior, was something to watch all night. He coaxed, implored, directed, and affirmed, signaling satisfaction with emphatic upturned thumbs and nods of approval as Hirsh soloed with style and playful conviction on Monk’s “Off Minor,” the second set opener. When Hirsh finished, McPherson pointed at his young piano player then looked at the audience as if to say, “If you don’t know this guy…you should know this guy.” On this night, McPherson was player/coach.
Two: Gilbert Castellanos’s sartorial elegance is outdone only by the panache and precision of his playing—and it’s a high threshold to clear; the man cuts a debonair figure.
The muted trumpet pairs perfectly with Gilbert Castellanos's always debonair, noirish cool -- with The Charles McPherson Quintet at Jazz Live, Aug. 8, 2023. Photo by Larry Redman.
His solo on the quintet’s Clifford Brown/Max Roach-inspired arrangement of “I Remember April” ranked high among the night’s high-water marks. As did his turn on McPherson’s “Song of the Sphinx,” a tune the maestro accurately described to the audience as “dark and ethereal” and one that he composed originally for Sweet Synergy Suite, his 2015 collaboration with the San Diego Ballet and his daughter Camille, then a featured soloist with the SDB. Castellanos’s muted trumpet, noirish and dreamlike, played like the sonic embodiment of cunning and guile and forbidden pleasures in foreign lands.
The bold ink is reserved for the headliners, but the sidemen came to play, too.
Sam Hirsh leads rhythm section on rendition of Cedar Walton's “Holy Land.” Photo by Matt Silver.
Hirsh shined brightly leading the rhythm section in a rendition of Cedar Walton’s “Holy Land” — and brightest bookending an already richly spiritual interpretation with passages of solo piano that suggested a young pianist possessed of an old soul.
“Cedar Lives!” Hirsh proclaimed backstage after the show. And through Hirsh’s playing and the right combination of hallucinogenics, Cedar just might.
Thorsen, meanwhile, reminded that the bass solo can be more than just the reward the bassist gets for doing all the heavy lifting. His turn out front on “Off Minor” was bouncy but not flamboyant and melodic as well as rhythmic. As bass solos go, quite palatable—enjoyable beyond something to be endured.
And the young drummer, San Diego native Tyler Kruetel, was steady Eddie all night, from his brush work on ballads (“Old Folks,” set one) to setting the supersonic pace on another Brown/Roach-inspired arrangement—the night’s closer, “Cherokee.”
Naturally, a preponderance of the night’s star-turns did come courtesy of San Diego jazz’s resident co-patriarchs; it was really cool to see the roles of the horns inverted on the Brown/Roach-inspired tunes such that the sax (McPherson) became the lead horn, allowing the trumpet (Castellanos) to simply own that second horn part played by the likes of Sonny Rollins and Harold Land on those legendary Brown and Roach albums.
McPherson's playing and sense of humor were both sharp for return of Jazz Live on Aug. 8, 2023. Photo by Larry Redman.
And speaking of Sonny Rollins…. McPherson was at his warmest on set one’s “Wedding Song,” another McPherson original from Jazz Dance Suites (McPherson’s album comprising two suites—the aforementioned Sweet Synergy Suite and Song of Songs—conceived to accompany ballet and recorded at the famed Van Gelder Studio in early 2020). This one plays like a more emotionally complex “St. Thomas,” complete with that familiar Latin-calypso groove but shot through with, dare I say, more than just a little hint of…klezmer! Which tracks with the Old Testament impetus for the composition (King Solomon’s wedding). Think Jewish wedding in a Latin-Caribbean locale, “St. Thomas,” and any given up-tempo selection from Cannonball’s “Fiddler.”
But for all the moments of individual brilliance on display, the quintet’s leader and elder statesman declared this quintet a democracy—for better or worse.
At one point, one of the band members looked toward McPherson as if seeking indication from the band’s senior member of what they’d play next. Deferring right back, McPherson picked up the microphone so the audience could hear the exchange and said, “This is a democracy. Which means nothing ever gets done.”
It was a joke, and was met with knowing nods and a sort of funny-because-it’s-true brand of laughter from the crowd, but it also landed with the added resonance of having been delivered at a theater that sits so near to both the profound despair of San Diego’s downtown homeless encampments and the gleaming high rise condos of the managerial class—as distilled a portrait of that which late-stage American capitalism hath wrought as there is.
And yet, hope. Not solely because the 84-year-old McPherson, who’s toured and recorded enough for several lifetimes, is still doing it at such a high level, though that’s certainly part of it. More hopeful to McPherson, who demonstrated early and often that his legendary status doesn’t place him above crowd work, was the full auditorium he saw before him.
“Jazz fans are salt of the earth…and just a bit smarter than everybody else,” McPherson proclaimed to the crowd between first-set tunes. “People that like jazz are the best people. Doctors who like jazz are the best doctors; lawyers who like jazz are the best lawyers; politicians who like jazz…well when there are some, they’ll be the best politicians.”
The "democratic" Charles McPherson Quintet post-concert at Saville Theatre. Photo by Matt Silver.
The crowd of nearly 300 roared with delight at another of the surprisingly quippy McPherson’s one-liners. But underneath the joke was a sentiment that I’m willing to bet felt fundamentally true to most of the crowd. Not that a proclivity towards jazz confers added IQ points or material wealth or any discernible or bankable virtue, but it does suggest that the person in question has an appetite to be awestruck. To feel a frisson of….something. Something unknowable. Something presenting like an emotional cocktail of exaltation and hope. Just for the briefest moment, at the point where natural human gifts and hours and hours and hours of sustained and concentrated efforting towards the purely abstract concept of perfection intersect. Where determinism and free will miraculously feel reconcilable for just a second.
Where, even without a packed house hungry for Jazz Live after 40 months, artists like McPherson and his bandmates would probably be doing the exact the same thing. Because they want to and because they have to.