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Charles McPherson With Strings A Tribute to Charlie Parker
CD Cover
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  • Charles McPherson - alto sax
  • Randy Porter - piano
  • Jeff Littleton - bass
  • Charles McPherson , Jr. - drums w/ Cleveland Chamber Symphony Howie Smith - conductor
CD Liner Notes

Charles McPherson with Strings
Tribute To Charlie Parker
By Dale Fielder

On behalf of my associates at Clarion Jazz, we are proud to offer here for the first time, the complete liner notes to the Charles McPherson’s Tribute To Charlie Parker compact disc, to all of our fellow jazz enthusiasts who have bought and supported this CD. Due to space limitations on the CD, the original liner notes were edited. As a writer, I am gratified that with the omitted sections now intact, it will convey a much better picture and understanding of this wonderful recording by the great Charles McPherson as well as his personal thoughts and processes. (Dale Fielder)

 It is harvest time for Charles McPherson. Let’s face it, Charles McPherson is one of the four or five great alto saxophonists on the planet now in the new millennium. He certainly is one of those “chosen few” still left who have essentially learned their craft at the feet of “the master”, Charles “Bird” Parker. The style of Charles Parker has had a profound effect on McPherson, who has absorbed Bird’s playing and constructed it into his own very personal style. What is most striking is that McPherson accomplished this in an era surrounded by a multitude of perhaps some of the greatest saxophonists to have ever played; and yet emerged with his own unique sound that has always been contemporary, relevant, and is connected to the past traditions of jazz. In other words, McPherson truly sounds “authentic”, and powerfully so. We are very fortunate in this current era of jazz here in the new millennium to still have Charles McPherson around as a reference point and an example of how a saxophonist should proceed. He is best known for his long tenure with Charles Mingus and the frequent musical collaborations with Lonnie Hillyer, Barry Harris, George Coleman and Pepper Adams as well as numerous recordings as a leader. He was also the featured alto saxophonist in the Clint Eastwood Malpaso/Warner Bros. award winning film about Charles Parker, “Bird”, recording the soundtrack as well as the companion recording “Live At Carnegie Hall-After Hours”. He is still a “youngish” 60-something, still vital and playing with great passion and fire. He also maintains a working quartet and an active touring schedule. As McPherson says, “I’m still passionately in love with music and playing the horn. I am still attempting to express the human spirit through the medium of music, through the medium of the saxophone with the right balance of inspiration and technique.”

Here we have a very special concert program by Charles McPherson with the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra under the direction of conductor Howie Smith, giving tribute to Charles Parker by reprising the Bird With Strings material. To be sure, such a task is daunting as well as problematic for an artist as contemporary as McPherson who is constantly focused in the present and looking ahead to the future. But the success of this endeavor largely hinges on the fresh and vital playing of Mr. McPherson who has effectively transformed Bird With Strings into Charles McPherson With Strings. It is amazing that an artist with such strong Parker-informed influences can emerge from a collection of compositions strongly identified with Charles Parker sounding completely as his own man. About this, McPherson said, “Of course this is the concern of someone like myself that is doing a project that has anything to do with someone as great as Charlie Parker. That does represent an obstacle. And I’ll tell you, my first inclination was not to do this. Not to involve myself in it because of that. I mean, how are you going to better Bird?” Enter Clarion Jazz CEO and impresario, Leonard Herring , Jr. This project was conceived and produced from it’s conception to it’s completion by Mr. Herring who is one of recording industries’ throw-backs to an earlier age when record people loved the music and were true visionaries. As McPherson says, “Basically, this was Leonard’s idea more than mine. I think he believed in it [more than I did] and wanted to engage in it. As I said before, at first I was apprehensive because of who did it already. And who did it already was Charlie Parker. So I didn’t want to be necessarily looked at as somebody who was second guessing Charlie Parker. Such a strong figure like that and such a perfect figure musically. So my first impulse was to not engage in that. But Leonard believed in the project so much so, that he just convinced me to do it. So after being convinced, then it’s like okay, since I am going to do this, how can I do it and try to maintain my own voice through this and possibly keep the aesthetic spirit of what the tunes are about. But it was definitely Leonard’s belief in the project that this came about.”

 The compositions performed by Mr. McPherson are among the most familiar items in the American jazz standard canon. They do not merit any critical analysis except to say they are by the great classic composers and were the original arrangements Bird used by Joe Lippman, Jimmy Carroll and Mitch Miller. However Yardbird Suite is an original arrangement by pianist Randy Porter, a member of McPherson’s working band. McPherson’s quartet of the past 10 years, in fact, was the nucleus for this project. And what a quartet indeed! Mr. McPherson has often lamented the fact that his record labels have always placed him with established, well recognized “named stars”, and how it would have been better to record with his own band. The band’s only previous recording, Manhattan Nocturne, on his own Chazz -Jazz label, has been critically acclaimed as perhaps his best and most exciting recording ever and attests to how very special indeed this band is. Asked to comment on the members of his quartet, McPherson said, “My son, Chuck McPherson, has grown so much as a drummer. And to me he has a wonderful swing feel. There are a lot of drummers but just because you play drums don’t mean you can swing. He really has a sense of swing that is extremely good and that is very, very important to me musically. Also the bass player Jeff Littleton is very steady, knowledgeable and plays with a good time feel. And Randy Porter is an excellent musician who is pretty much a virtuoso on the piano and he has a good sense of musicality. And they are all nice people as well. They have the spirit to willingly engage in spontaneity and they have the right feeling. There are other people that I play with that on an individual level might be as good, but the thing about it is that you can have more of your musical personality and whatever nuances musically you want to bring out can be best brought out by people you play with all the time . . . people you can say ‘this is my group’. Why? Because you work with these people all the time and there is a symbiosis there that’s a complimentary thing and is part of why a group [that] is a group works well. A group is what gives birth to all those things. Within a group that has that kind of thing happening, better music is apt to be performed. It’s a team sport.”

 I’ve personally had the distinct privilege to serve as Mr. McPherson’s conductor and musical director on subsequent performances of this work. I can personally attest to the passion and vitality of Mr. McPherson’s playing. I was constantly amazed at how contemporary and up to date he made this 45 year old body of work sound. Being a saxophonist myself, I was familiar with this work and of course, my ear was trained to look for Bird references throughout these tunes of which I heard none. Not a one. I was constantly dumbfounded and gratified as McPherson seemed determined to go his own way. I asked him about that and McPherson commented, “In other words, the element of novelty would have to be so strong that even if you did it, it’s different and then therefore it’s okay. In that regard, I tried to be that way when it comes to the soloing aspect of it. You make a point of not playing a lick that Bird played on these things. Not to do what he did, but just to play the tune and improvise on the tune the way you’re going to do it. I deliberately didn’t play any catch phrases that are associated with Bird on certain tunes on these records. However that becomes even harder. If one is even able to some kind of a way to pull that off, you still have the pull of the exact arrangements that the man had. That means you have to enter and exit in the same places he did. Now that makes it hard. Now this project would have been a lot easier for a performer to find his own voice through all that if the arrangements where totally different. Therefore the element of novelty or the element of whatever allows you to be different and dramatically so, is more easily attained because the arrangements are different. It becomes even harder when you’re not only playing what the man played but you’re playing the exact same arrangements where he’s entering and you’re soloing in the same spot. So it becomes even harder and the only thing you can do is to just try to play good on it and to find your own ways of doing things within that construct. Its not very easy and I don’t know if I necessarily pulled it off, but I tried.”

This recording without the slightest doubt testifies to the fact that McPherson’s efforts paid off very successfully. And the jazz world has been made the richer for it now that we have this recording to listen to and learn from. With this new CD, the stage can now always be reset to the evening of November 5 th, 2001 at Cleveland State University in Cleveland , Ohio where legendary alto master Charles McPherson, the members of his quartet, the members of the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and conductor Howie Smith take center stage. As engineer David Yost switches the tape recorder on, the true brilliance of Charles McPherson is captured and new life was breathed into perhaps the greatest work of Charles Parker for the first time in the new millennium. A recording for the ages, this recording is all about excellence. I think upon repeated listenings to this work, it will be realized that Charles McPherson created a great work of true brilliance in uniting jazz’s past with the present. It is a work of excellence that is much too rare in these times. We are most fortunate and are truly blessed that we have his brilliance and this magical night captured on disc, and that we can enjoy it over and over, again and again through the years to come.