WBGO Radar

Charles McPherson: "The Journey"

saxophonist charles mcpherson

For alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, The Journey is life itself: he shares the full range and colors of life through music.

“You have to be able to play the full human spectrum: sadness, happiness, deep depression, ecstasy and everything in the middle,” he says.

“As an improviser, I consider myself in state of becoming,” he explains. “So you take musicality and dimension - being able to play of the gradations of emotion that are out there – and have mastery, to get the best out of yourself.”

McPherson’s own journey has carried him from Joplin, Missouri to Detroit, where as a teen he was transfixed to hear Charlie Parker play at the Madison Ballroom, and inspired to seek a life in music.

Another Detroit reedman – Yusef Lateef – recommended McPherson for bassist Charles Mingus’s band in New York. McPherson got the gig, and stayed with Mingus for twelve years.

John and Naima Coltrane were McPherson’s neighbors in Queens, and even looked after his children in the afternoons as he made his way home from a day job at the IRS.

Now based in San Diego, McPherson travels frequently to perform and teach clinics, and often combines the two. It was one such trip last year to Denver that the music we hear on his new Capri Records CD, The Journey, was born.

He connected in Denver with tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman, during clinics at the arts high school where Oxman teaches – East High – and the city’s Dazzle nightclub.

They decided to document their connection for the Colorado-based Capri, in the refined company of pianist Chip Stephens, bassist Ken Walker and drummer Todd Reid.  We hear the results of this fortunate encounter on The Journey, which will be relased Feb. 17.

McPherson and Oxman’s affinity is clear from the album’s opener, an original by Stephens, on which the pair harmonize as they state the melody together, as they do on other songs, such as “Manhattan Nocturne.”

The album features two Oxman originals and three by McPherson, two of which are recorded here for the first time. Rounding out the session are an uptempo version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Spring Is Here,” Sammy Cahn’s ballad “I Should Care,” and Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave.”

 “Au Privave,” like much of McPherson’s playing, conveys his deep understanding of Parker’s improvisation, and his own daring ability to take listeners into dimensions of surprise, in this case with half-step modulations of the melody.

McPherson’s original “Bud Like” is, like “Au Privave,” a blues with a slightly different point of view – it honors pianist Bud Powell’s innovative harmonic approach on tunes such as “Dance Of The Infidels.”

Sammy Cahn’s “Spring Is Here” is a deeply resonant duet with Stephens’ piano, one of the album’s most moving highlights.

 “When everything is working right, when you’ve got head and heart - intellect and soul,” says McPherson. “That’s the highest – where technique is holding the hand of inspiration.”

On The Journey, everything is working right. You can hear McPherson’s combination of head and heart for yourself on April 11, when he visits NJPAC for “Bird Lives!,” a saxophone summit with Phil Woods, Jesse Davis, hosted by pianist Bill Charlap.

   - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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