Jazz festival moves away from smooth jazz

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Charles McPherson, alto sax man who played with jazz legend Charles Mingus for 12 years and played on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s movie “Bird,” the story of jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker, headlines at Jazz in the Pines on Saturday, Aug. 12.
Photo courtesy Charles McPherson

Feature new jazz innovators and jazz legends

Jazz in the Pines returns to its original roots, under the guidance of founder Marshall Hawkins and John Newman, Idyllwild Art Academy director of business operations.

Gone are the days of smooth jazz headliners in Holmes Amphitheatre. From this point forward, producers intend to feature up-and-coming jazz innovators, jazz stalwarts who have played with some of the greatest names in the jazz pantheon and IAA jazz graduates who are beginning to make names for themselves.

Traditional jazz was born of innovation and improvisation. The notes were never the same twice. It was in-the-moment, you-had-to-be-there music. And that is the music with which the festival began and to which producers promise to remain faithful.

“The festival has returned to its roots, where it began in 1994,” said Hawkins. “It’s about jazz music, not a radio listening format. The first year it sold out. The draw was the music and the mountain, and from the beginning it brought attention to Idyllwild Arts and its purpose. And from the beginning it was successful.”

Said Newman, “Marshall and I are committed to showcasing real jazz, not smooth jazz, not commercialized jazz, not elevator jazz. Our musicians don’t play the same songs the same way twice. They don’t play one note at a time. They are creators and innovators, and if we are committed to keeping jazz music alive, they are the artists who will ensure its survival.”

Jazz in the Pines headliners Charles McPherson and Russell Malone have worked with some of the greatest names in jazz and are, with their unique voices, continuing to expand the jazz catalogue and enrich the musical conversation. Alto sax player McPherson and his quintet are closing headliners on Saturday, Aug. 12, in Holmes Amphitheatre and Malone and his quartet close on Sunday, Aug. 13.

McPherson played with jazz legend Charles Mingus for 12 years during the height of Mingus’ fame, from 1960 to 1972. McPherson was 20 when he started with Mingus. He played on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Academy Award winning movie “Bird,” about jazz legend Charlie Parker. Early on, McPherson frequently collaborated with Lonnie Hillyer, Barry Harris, George Coleman and Pepper Adams.

After moving to San Diego, McPherson built a hometown-based career as leader of his own groups, as resident composer for the San Diego Ballet and as a featured recording artist. McPherson has lived jazz history and exudes respect for that history.

Jazz guitarist Russell Malone brings his warm tones and unhurried musical conversation as headliner at Jazz in the Pines on Sunday, Aug. 13.
Photo courtesy Russell Malone

Musically reared in bebop, McPherson espouses the importance of being engaged, actively in the moment, not just in music but in everything. He talks about rhythmic time, the beats, the speed, as a living thing, an immersive energy that feeds creativity.

“There’s metronomic time and then there’s aesthetic time,” said McPherson. Metronomic time is academic time, 160 on the metronome is 160. There is no subjectivity and there is no philosophy. Then there is aesthetic time. It’s how you feel about 160. And more importantly, how are you feeling in between the beats? There is this feeling in between the beats, even if you don’t commit to playing a note. The magic is there in what you do and in what you don’t do. An improviser has to be totally alive throughout the whole spectrum of a bar.”

McPherson illustrates with analogies. He suggested metronomic time is like marching. Aesthetic time is like ice skating, or Michael Jordan, weaving and pivoting through opposing players down the court. Metronomic time can be goose steps and aesthetic time is Tai Chi.

“Phrasing is the balance of what is on the beat with what is off the beat, and how you even that out to create tension and release,” he related. “It’s like a bow and arrow. The tension is pulling back on the bow. That is the upbeat, and the release is the downbeat.”

McPherson believes creativity is enriched by tapping into a collective unconscious and being receptive to all that is there. “You get to this particular meditative state, with humility, being ready to receive. And it’s that ability to be receptive and open to ideas that fuels improvisation. That is how you accomplish things for which you don’t have empirical evidence. That is how you get a Mozart. Of course, you have to have the technique. But when craft meets inspiration and technique, then you have genius.”

Although known as a master craftsman with a unique voice, McPherson is humble and self-effacing. “I think the higher level of civility with which we treat each other defines us,” he said.

McPherson chose saxophone because it is most like the human voice. “When you play saxophone, it’s like you’re singing,” he said. His music, his improvisation, his balancing of tension and release is a conversation you will want to hear.

Joining McPherson are band mates Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet, Randy Porter on piano, Rob Thorsen on bass and Richard Weller on drums.

Guitarist Malone has played with jazz organist Jimmy Smith and been part of Harry Connick Jr.’s big band. He was sideman for Diana Krall throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s. During this time, Malone also appeared with Branford Marsalis, Benny Green, Terrell Stafford and Ray Brown. He has recorded with Krall, Wynton Marsalis, Ron Carter and Ben Wolfe. Working with some of the leading names in contemporary jazz, Malone has firmly established himself as a key member of the group.

Downbeat’s Kurt Rosenwinkel said of Malone, “Obviously we are in the capable hands of a master. The relaxed quality of everything that is being played gives it such a warm feeling.”

Malone is known for his unhurried and understated authority in phrasing, with musical language that is lyrical, shaped and constructed to be understandable and communicative. “I pick songs that have strong melodies and good chord changes,” said Malone, who counts as his musical influences Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Kenny Burrell and Chet Aktins. “The older I get, the more I value the things that will stay with the listener.” Malone’s tone is warm and inviting, his musical choices are accessible and his conversational phrasing is engaging.

Malone comfortably eases his way through a broad mix of musical genres — old school and contemporary pop, original jazz, gospel, country and the blues. Joining Malone are his regulars, pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Willie Jones III. “The best music comes from great players who trust each other,” he said. “I use that approach with my band. I may have a blueprint in my mind for the tune, but when we play, it evolves through the group.”

Malone noted in his own musical evolution the importance of trusting his own voice. “Around the age of 35, I began to understand that no matter how great the players were who were my musical influences, I had to be me. I did not have to make the same choices as others did or live up to what someone else’s idea of jazz was.”

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