Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Motor City Saxman

By Michael Henningsen

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  Charles McPherson makes his home in sunny La Jolla, Calif., now, but it was in Detroit that he stumbled upon--and fell in love with--the bebop of the 1950s. He spent his formative years in the Motor City, absorbing the music of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and saxophonist Johnny Hodges, but in his mid-teens, McPherson was turned onto Charlie Parker by a friend, and there was no turning back. He became a disciple of the Bird but learned to infuse his own lyricism into the bebop vernacular.

His early career was spent bouncing around the hip Detroit jazz scene of the '50s, playing alongside other giants of the era including Donald Byrd, Miles Davis, Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan and Elvin Jones. In 1959, McPherson moved to New York and began working with Charles Mingus within a year, eventually replacing Eric Dolphy as a regular member of Mingus' band in 1961. It was an off and on musical relationship that would last more than a decade.

In 1972, following a short stint in a quintet with his friend and a Mingus band alumnus Lonnie Hillyer, McPherson began leading his own quartet. He left New York in 1978 for Southern California, playing in various ensembles and occasionally touring the U.S. and abroad. In 1988, director Clint Eastwood called upon McPherson to play parts not taken from Charlie Parker recordings on the soundtrack for his docu-drama, Bird.

Over the course of more than a dozen records for the Mainstream, Xanadu, Discovery and Arabesque labels, McPherson has established himself as a stylist in the tradition of Parker but with a deep expressionist's feel all his own. On his latest recording, Manhattan Nocturne (Arabesque), McPherson's playing is as sharp and lyrical as it has ever been. His lines are alternately agile and reflexive, measured and smoky. After some 35 years, Charles McPherson carries the bebop torch, but it's brightly lit with a flame all his own.

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