by Zan StewartCopyright © 1998, Zan Stewart
FULLERTON, CA. July 18 - One word best describes the way Charles McPherson, the 58-year-old bebop-based alto saxophone master, played before a full house at Steamers Cafe on Saturday night: dazzling.
Not that this was anything new. The Joplin, Mo.- born, Detroit-raised McPherson, who arrived on the New York jazz scene in 1960 and soon made a name for himself with bassist Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop and as a recording artist, has long been a superbly inventive Charlie Parker-influenced jazzman who brings a high degree of individuality to the table. As the years go by, McPherson simply keeps getting better, playing with more dynamism, subtlety, freedom of expression, personality. "Isn't that what's supposed to happen, that you improve as you age?" he asked rhetorically before his first set.
Interestingly, the alto great who heads this week to New York to play the famed Village Vanguard, commemorating the release of his fine new album, Manhattan Nocturne, offered several of the tunes he played when last reviewed in The Times at Steamers 18 months ago. On the program were the originals "The Seventh Dimension" and "Manhattan Nocturne," the timeless standards "Darn That Dream" and "Embraceable You," and the classic jazz blues numbers "Billie's Bounce" and "Blue N' Boogie." But each interpretation was instilled with such passion, vigor and imagination that you could listen to same set over and over and come away not only satisfied, but moved as well.
McPherson, who performed with his quartet of Mikan Zlatkovich, piano, Isla Eckinger, bass and Chuck McPherson, drums, was completely concentrated on stage. His eyes were closed as he played, his body moved only slightly, his fingers stayed close to the keys of his vintage King saxophone, a style of horn played by Parker and another alto giant, Cannonball Adderley. And despite a virtuosic technique, McPherson didn't waste notes; there was a grand logic to what he delivered. Even his least interesting ideas - brief series of ascending or descending scalar passages - had a function, serving as bridges between the previous grand melodic statement and the one that was to come.
The numbers highlighted different aspects of McPherson's artistry, though at the center of everything was a vibrant, juicy tone that made whatever came out of his instrument have an immediate impact and appeal. The opening "Boogie," taken at a fast clip, found the alto saxophonist unleashing a seemingly endless font of ideas. Brief spinning phrases, lines that leapt from horn bottom to top, gorgeous twist-turn melodic garlands, bluesy bursts - the leader wove all these and more into a compelling musical tapestry. "Billie's" and "Cherokee" were similarly enthralling.
The slower "Seventh" and "Nocturne" were examples of McPherson's affinity for exotic non-bop moods, where the rhythms had a Latin or Middle Eastern feel and the themes occasionally lingered on held notes. In his solos, the alto saxophonist revealed a deeper, more thoughtful side of his work, juxtaposing sweet, fat tones with more insistent, note-rich statements. On "Darn," his notes were extra luscious and he coaxed emotional lines out of his horn that were sometimes followed by fleet phrases where the tones smeared into sumptuous color.
Zlatkovich, an émigré from Yugoslavia, was a good contrast for McPherson. He mixed bits of his primary influence - McCoy Tyner - with a helping of Bud Powell and a dash of Oscar Peterson into an agreeable style. He got a big sound out of the piano, offering firm accompaniment and soloing with a modern melange of crisply articulated lines, rolling tremolos and block chords. Eckinger added big tones to the support crew. Chuck McPherson, the leader's son, pushed the band with considerable energy and fire without being overly loud.
While to some ears McPherson's performance might have seemed perfect, the artist knew better. During a set break, a youthful saxophone hopeful said to the altoist, "Maybe if I keep practicing, I can play as well as you can." McPherson replied: "Maybe if I keep practicing, I can play as well as I can."
Zan Stewart is a veteran jazz writer and enthusiastic student of the saxophone; this review was first published in the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Edition, July 20, 1998.