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McPherson Hits Lucky Note With Tape of Live Concert

Jazz saxman Charles McPherson wasn’t thinking about a new album, but he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of a recording made at a live date last year with a small digital cassette machine and two microphones suspended above the stage.

So McPherson formed his own Chazz Jazz label, and the tape became “Illusions in Blue,” his first album of new music since 1985, and his first-ever album of all-original music.

McPherson is in full command of a tone that flows through five songs like hot lava, throwing off molten sparks as he stretches five songs into extended meditations. The shortest cut is nearly 11 minutes, the longest, almost 17. McPherson’s talented young bandmates--son Chuck McPherson on drums, former San Diegan Randy Porter on piano and Jeffrey Littleton on bass--rise to the occasion, molding their intelligent performances together in support of McPherson’s crying, moaning, singing alto.

The recording couldn’t have come at a more propitious time. McPherson had just finished a slew of new material, all of it intended to move beyond the be-bop and post-be-bop he cut his chops on. And he succeeds magnificently, taking the alto sax into fresh territory--not through avant garde honks and squeals, but through subtle melodic, harmonic and rhythmic variations.

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“It’s a departure from the classic be-bop style, which is where I am musically,” McPherson said. “Be-bop and post-be-bop serve as my foundation, but I think of it more as being the trunk of the tree, then you’ve got the branches. I’m dealing with the branches right now.”

Here, then, is how McPherson sees the songs on “Illusions in Blue:”

The title track “Illusions in Blue”: “My wife (classically trained pianist Lynn McPherson) helped me out. She suggested some things, like some key changes. It’s a very bluesy tune, and it’s based spiritually and structurally on the 12-bar blues. The harmonies are slightly different in spots. There’s a sort of pulsating harmonic thing the tune seems to have. The harmonies are there, but there are certain notes where I change them by going up a half step or down a half step, stretching them a bit. Harmonically and rhythmically, I wanted it to be an illusion. It’s blues, but surrealistic . . . not as heavy as Salvador Dali. I might draw a pear, and it would be a pear, but I might make the pear a little longer or the anatomy might be a little different. The rhythms are very syncopated. Where one expects the downbeat or accent to fall, I make a point of not letting it fall in that spot. Essentially, it’s like a drunk man walking a tight rope but he doesn’t fall off.”

“A Tear and a Smile”: “A ballad. It’s the emotion of not knowing whether to laugh or cry. There are things in life that happen that way all the time. It’s probably the soul of what irony is.”

“Manhattan Nocturne”: “The scenario is New York at 4 in morning after the city has essentially shut down. A rainy night, I can see the skyline with lights on, some of the cleanup crews are cleaning buildings. It’s peaceful and very quiet; people from New York know what I’m talking about. The hustle and bustle is over, and even all the crooks are asleep.”

“Be-bop to Hip Hop”: “It’s just a 12-bar blues, with some harmonic differences. It kind of symbolizes what I’m talking about when I’m talking about slight departures from the be-bop thing.”

“Quiet Storm”: “Kind of what the title implies. There’s a lot of energy, but it’s controlled, like the eye in the middle of the hurricane.”

The album is the latest triumph in a career that began under the guidance of Barry Harris and Charles Mingus in the 1960s and included McPherson’s vital readings of Charlie Parker’s sax parts on the soundtrack of “Bird,” the movie about Parker’s life. McPherson doesn’t have a recording contract, but if this doesn’t land him one, somebody’s deaf out there.

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Copies of the album will be available at McPherson’s live dates, including a May 25 appearance at the U.S. Grant Hotel, or you can order a copy by calling 563-9892.

Prompted by local jazz buff Jim Merod, who lined up the talent for the San Diego Jazz Society’s “Jazz Masters Series,” San Juan Capistrano jazz singer Stephanie Haynes closes the series with a rare foray as a big-band vocalist Friday night at 8 in the Don Powell Theater at San Diego State University.

“This is totally different for me. I haven’t really sung with big bands at all,” said Haynes, who has hand-picked six songs to perform with the SDSU Jazz Ensemble. Her choices include Rodgers and Hart’s “This Can’t Be Love,” Sergio Mendes’ “So Many Stars,” Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” and “You Are Exactly What I Like,” written by her husband, jazz bassist Jack Prather.

Although Haynes has been compared to singer Irene Kral, that’s not how she hears herself. “I think I’m a direct link to Carmen McRae,” she said.

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Haynes’ last album, the 1988 “Here’s That Rainy Day,” won critical acclaim, but the singer’s relationship with her label, Discovery, is on hold--business affairs at the label are in chaos following a stroke that paralyzed its founder, Albert Marx.

Later this spring the San Diego Jazz Society will spend the remaining part of its $13,800 grant from the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture on two free concerts featuring local artists.

Last year, jazz pianist Harry Pickens unraveled some of the mysteries of the art of improvisation in a series at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla. Audiences warmed to Pickens’ mix of articulate lecturing and virtuoso demonstrations. He returns on Thursday nights at 7 this month for a lecture/concert series on great composers, beginning Thursday with a focus on Duke Ellington.

“I think that Ellington in some sense is the quintessential American composer, and we’re not just talking about jazz,” Pickens said. “Hopefully people who come to the series will get even more of an understanding and appreciation of how broad-based and deep his influence has been on American music.”

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RIFFS: LaRue Brown Watson, widow of the late trumpeter Clifford Brown, will be interviewed by Janine Harty on the “Instrumental Women” program Wednesday afternoon at 2 on KSDS-FM (88.3). The show also will feature plenty of Brown’s music, including trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s version of “LaRue,” which Brown wrote for his wife but never recorded before he died at 25 in 1956 in an auto accident. . . . The Fish House West restaurant in Cardiff has closed, and jazz players and fans will miss the spring and summer Sunday afternoon jams led by saxophonist Tony Ortega. . . . Singer Ruth Price teams with pianist Mike Wofford Friday and Saturday night at 8:30 at All That Jazz in Rancho Bernardo.


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