CD REVIEW: Charles McPherson - The Journey

Charles McPherson - The Journey
(Capri Records 74136-2. CD review by Andy Boeckstaens)

Alto saxophone player Charles McPherson has had a distinguished career. He worked alongside Lionel Hampton and Jay McShann; enjoyed a long association with Charles Mingus, and has led an impressive array of recordings with stars ranging from Duke Jordan to Tom Harrell.

McPherson’s latest CD – taped last spring - maintains the standards that you’d expect from a man with his pedigree, but on this occasion his front-line partner - tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman - is not a big name. Furthermore, the sessions that resulted in The Journey were instigated not by the boss of a major label but by McPherson and Oxman themselves, after they met at a music clinic at the Denver jazz club, Dazzle.

The opener sets the bar high. Following a striking figure for saxes and piano, McPherson takes a thrilling solo on Decathexis from Youth (For Cole). Its composer, Chip Stephens, first caught my attention in 1996 when he appeared in London with Arturo Sandoval, and his poised, intelligent pianism throughout the album is an absolute joy. His duet with McPherson on I Should Care sticks closely to the melody, but he is quietly inventive and provides a platform that enables the leader to be heard at his plaintive best.

Charles McPherson
Photo credit: Melody McLaren

McPherson enthuses that Oxman is “extremely creative and in possession of a really good technique”, and has “spirituality in his playing, and a depth of feeling that is rare”. He should not have been surprised. Although he keeps a fairly low profile, Oxman’s an experienced instrumentalist and has recorded several albums for Capri under his own name. His composition Elena is a lovely ballad, and Tami’s Tune throws him into the spotlight with sterling accompaniment only from bassist Ken Walker and drummer Todd Reid.

Manhattan Nocturne is a medium-paced Latin swinger, and the first of three originals by McPherson. The saxophonists combine well here and on the title track, and there are times when their alto and tenor tones are so alike that it’s hard to tell who’s doing what. Bud Like has fine solos from both of them.

McPherson has always had an adventurous streak, and it’s great that – in his mid 70s - he remains keen to fashion fast, complex figures despite the risk of an imperfect outcome. Similarly, his arrangements of Spring is Here and Au Privave demonstrate that he is not content to churn out familiar standards in a predictable way.

Few moments on The Journey really set the pulse racing, but it’s an enjoyable set from a relatively undersung master. Just as importantly, McPherson’s excellent sidemen – like so many musicians around the world – prove that you don’t have to be famous to deliver mighty good jazz.

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