Charles McPherson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Charles McPherson

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The jazz public's reevaluation of alto saxist Charles McPherson--for years written off as just another Charlie Parker clone, albeit the most skillful--makes for one of the more gratifying stories in the genre's recent history. Born in 1939 (the year Parker first went to New York) in Joplin, Missouri (about 150 miles from Parker's birthplace, Kansas City), McPherson himself headed to New York as a teenager and almost immediately began a 12-year association with Charles Mingus, at times sharing a stage with Eric Dolphy. McPherson and Dolphy made good foils for each other, the latter pushing toward the avant-garde while the former pulled back toward bebop, honing an almost uncanny ability to duplicate Parker's timbre, phrasing, and sometimes even rhythmic inventiveness; when he stepped out to record under his own name, the effect could be outright stunning. But McPherson's renown as a Parker imitator also meant that neither critics nor audiences were attuned to his subsequent development, both as an individuated bop-based player and as a small-band composer and arranger--most of that growth happened in relative obscurity. Ironically, it took another boost from Parker's legacy to remind folks that McPherson hadn't actually gone anywhere: in 1988, when director Clint Eastwood released Bird, his controversial Parker biopic, he supplemented Parker's original recordings with "re-creations" from McPherson. Ten years and three albums later, when McPherson presented his own music at Lincoln Center, it reawakened New York critics to his heartfelt, beautifully crafted approach--and also impressed Lincoln Center jazz guru Wynton Marsalis so much that he signed on as a sideman in McPherson's band for several New York dates. As he demonstrates on his latest disc, the 1998 Manhattan Nocturne (Arabesque), McPherson has effortlessly incorporated his first crush on Bird and his adolescent maturation under Mingus into a vibrant style that updates bop with harmonic developments and rhythmic departures culled from the last 35 years of jazz history. Tuesday through Thursday, March 26 through 28, 8 and 10 PM, Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, March 31, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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