1:46 PM CDT, August 9, 2013
Charlie Parker's music lends itself to many interpretations, and one of the more fiery approaches singed the Jazz Showcase on Thursday night.
Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson kicked off the second week of the club's annual "August is Charlie Parker Month" festivities, McPherson's stature as a leading Parker acolyte explaining why he's always invited back. This time he played with more brio than ever, though also with a certain relentlessness of tone and energy that cried out for sonic and musical relief.
Certainly McPherson hit hard from the outset, his ripe sound, italicized gestures and nearly frenetic phrase-making suggesting that the veteran altoist takes nothing for granted. There were no throwaway phrases here, no routine gestures in his heady account of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love." McPherson's musical language may have been drawn from the classic bebop playbook, but he infused it with a distinctive technical brilliance and emotional ferocity.
In the classic "Star Eyes," McPherson offered prolific melodic invention, his ornately drawn lines practically tumbling one onto the next. The high decibel levels and sharp attacks left no doubt that McPherson views Parker's idiom as a portal to epic, heroic statements.
He was aided in his heaven-storming quest by three top-flight Chicago-area musicians, with particularly effective contributions from pianist Ron Perrillo. In the aforementioned two pieces and others yet to come, Perrillo gave McPherson all the rhythmic drive and motivic development he wanted, as well a deep-into-the-keys pianism that provided counterweight to McPherson's solo flights. With bassist Dennis Carroll producing sonorous low notes and Greg Artry driving hard and fast on drums, this was a charged-up bebop band with a 21st century edge.
But because McPherson eased up only twice – toward the end of "Lover Man" and in an effective blues – the music-making became somewhat repetitive and sometimes wearying. You can't serve up this much fury and frenzy, in other words, without diminishing the impact of each successive surge of sound.
So even though McPherson attained phenomenal speed and articulation in an exuberant "Lover," appealingly angular lines in Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor" and tremendous rhythmic animation in his own "Marionette," all this hyperactive playing tired the ear and wore down the spirit. Everyone knows McPherson can play at an exalted technical level; a little more expressive variety would be welcome.
That said, there were some memorable moments here, many from pianist Perrillo's fingertips. His solo in "Off Minor," for instance, captured the sharp corners and rhythmic puckishness of Monk's idiom while avoiding the Monk-like cliches that mar the work of lesser pianists. And the originality of Perrillo's right-hand lines added dimension to the quartet's performance.
Bassist Carroll turned in a poetic, bowed solo on "Lover Man," and drummer Artry never let rhythmic momentum flag.
Now McPherson and friends need to take a few breaths amid all the excitement and give listeners some passages of contemplation.
Charles McPherson Quartet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Tickets: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
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