Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson was born in Missouri, but grew up in Detroit. Moving to New York at 20, in 1959, he connected with Charles Mingus, with whom he’d work off and on until 1972. He can be heard on Mingus’s The Complete Town Hall Concert, Let My Children Hear Music and Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert, though always as part of a large ensemble. He also recorded with pianist Barry Harris (who he’d known and studied with in Detroit), trumpeter Art Farmer, and others, and made his debut as a leader in 1964 with Bebop Revisited. That album featured Carmell Jones on trumpet, Harris on piano, Nelson Boyd on bass, and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, and its title signaled the primary direction McPherson’s career would take for the next five decades.
No matter what tune he’s playing, or what year it is, Charles McPherson is always at his core a bebop saxophonist. His tone is clean, his lines are quick and complex without ever devolving into mere streams of notes, and he’s constantly striving to pick apart melodies and chords in new and surprising ways. (This interview with pianist Ethan Iverson is fascinating and gives as deep a view into McPherson’s musical philosophy and improvisational approach as you could ask for.) Within the boundaries of an ultimately conservative style, performing lots of standards (and originals that sound like them), he regularly injects genuinely thrilling doses of creativity.
In the mid-1970s, McPherson found the perfect home for his sound and style. The Xanadu label was founded by Don Schlitten, who had produced the saxophonist’s first six albums between 1964 and 1969. Between 1975 and 1978, they made four more albums together, two of which have recently been reissued.
His debut for Xanadu, 1975’s Beautiful! (get it from Amazon), was also his first not to include any originals—it’s a collection of standards performed by a quartet: McPherson, pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Leroy Williams. “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “But Beautiful,” “It Could Happen to You,” “Lover,” “This Can’t Be Love,” “Body and Soul,” “It Had to Be You”—these are songs that have been recorded hundreds of times, by hundreds of musicians. If you’ve spent any time at all listening to old jazz albums, you know at least some of them, even if you don’t know you do. The CD reissue contains one bonus track, a nine-minute version of “All God’s Children Got Rhythm.”
Beautiful! is a smooth, swinging album on which McPherson’s bebop style is actually not that dominant. There are a few tunes, particularly “Lover,” on which he really cuts loose, uncoiling long ribbons of notes in a determinedly Charlie Parker-esque manner. But on the midtempo and ballad numbers, especially the version of “But Beautiful,” which ends with a solo saxophone coda, this sounds more like one of Dexter Gordon‘s mid ’70s Columbia albums like Sophisticated Giant or Manhattan Symphonie than some unearthed 1940s side. McPherson’s insistence on knowing the lyrics to songs he performs—to playing them as songs, not as collections of chords—is definitely something he shares with Gordon, and it gives his performances here a flow and thoughtfulness that overshadows his mastery of the horn. Even when he tackles a song like “Body and Soul,” which saxophonists have been using as a trampoline since the 1930s, he seems to approach it like a singer, and it gives his version a beauty that lodges it in the listener’s memory.
In the spring of 1976, McPherson, Jones and Williams, along with Barry Harris and guitarist Jimmy Raney, undertook a Japanese tour. McPherson, Harris, and Raney each came home with albums, all called Live in Tokyo. The Harris and Raney discs document trio performances, but all five men play on McPherson’s (the two tracks where Raney joins the band, “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” and “Groovin’ High,” are CD bonus tracks).
McPherson had played with Harris and Williams—sometimes together, sometimes separately—dozens if not hundreds of times over the years; the pianist was one of his most important mentors, dating back to his childhood in Detroit. So the performances on Live in Tokyo (pre-order it from Amazon) sound extremely comfortable, with Jones providing a solid anchor point and everyone digging deep into the grooves and the tunes. The disc kicks off with one of two McPherson compositions, the self-explanatory “Tokyo Blues”; it’s a simple enough platform that allows everyone to solo, a quick way of saying “Hi, we’re the band.” That’s followed by a version of the standard “East of the Sun,” and Antonio Carlos Jobim‘s “Desafinado.” The album’s second half commences with another McPherson composition likely written for this tour, “Orient Express.” Following a short introduction from Harris, it’s the saxophonist’s show, and he cuts loose for three minutes straight, finally ceding the spotlight to the pianist, who takes an extended solo of his own. The two bonus tracks, featuring Jimmy Raney, are also the disc’s most orthodox bebop performances. The guitarist is as much a fan of fast, clean lines as McPherson, and the two rip through unison melody lines before trading lightning-quick, high-energy solos.
The fact that these albums are so firmly rooted in tradition—old tunes, old-school styles of performance—gives them a timeless quality. (So does Don Schlitten‘s production, which avoids the rubber-band bass sound that marked so many acoustic jazz albums as being products of the 1970s.) Beautiful! and Live in Tokyo aren’t history lessons; they’re just great collections of music.