Charles McPherson: Reverence

The bebop veteran, whose fluid melodic style reflects the initial influence of Johnny Hodges, pays tribute to bop apostle Barry Harris


As New Grove insightfully comments, Charles McPherson is one of the most inventive bebop altoists, whose fluid melodic style reflects the initial influence of Johnny Hodges. Reverence is McPherson’s Smoke Sessions debut, the first of a series of live recordings marking the 25th anniversary of the Harlem jazz venue, and the 10th of its associated label. McPherson had a week-long engagement there in November 2022 – it had been recently renovated post-pandemic. “It’s a perfectly sized, well-run club,” he says. “Both the label and the club [are] run by people who love the music.”

The saxophonist was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1939 and grew up in Detroit, where he was mentored by Barry Harris. Future trumpeter Lonnie Hillyer was his childhood friend – they later played with Charles Mingus. At Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn, the house band included Harris, Pepper Adams, Paul Chambers and Elvin Jones – a remarkable mix of bebop and (future) postbop. McPherson arrived in New York in 1959 and soon joined Charles Mingus, with whom he played for the next 15 years. He moved to San Diego in 1978. In 1988, he appeared on the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s Bird.

The new album is dedicated to bebop master Barry Harris (1929-2021), and features the leader’s Ode To Barry. “[The pianist] always told me that there was more to this music than just playing the horn – you actually have to know how to think… In order to be hip in Detroit at that time you had to know about Bird … Schopenhauer, Miró, Gerald Massey, and Immanuel Kant as well.” “But I’m not a civilized bebopper,” he adds. “I’m a wild bebopper.” Harris, in contrast – whom I interviewed for Jazz Review over 20 years ago – was the epitome of civilised.

Reverence reconvenes McPherson’s regular group from his previous album, Jazz Dance Suites. It opens with Surge, a plangent minor blues, which features a beautifully balanced, lucid and impassioned solo by Stafford, followed by a rhythmically freer statement by the leader. Yes, he’s a wild bebopper for sure. Dynamic Duo expresses McPherson’s boyhood love of comics, while Old Folks is a moving ballad interpretation of the standard. Blues For Lonnie In Three is a tribute to his musical partner Lonnie Hillyer, who died in 1985. You’d expect a musician of the stature of Charles McPherson to have a state of the art band, and so it proves. That’s “state of the art” in the sense of “the highest level of general development” – the result is classic post-bop by an elder statesman of the music.

Surge; Blues For Lonnie In Three; Come Rain Or Come Shine; Dynamic Duo; Old Folks; Ode To Barry (44.38)
McPherson (as); Terell Stafford (t); Jeb Patton (p); David Wong (b); Billy Drummond (d). New York, 1-5 November 2023.
Smoke Sessions Records SSR-2402