In the past month, much has been abuzz about Charlie Parker’s centennial birthday. Arguably one of Bird’s foremost disciples in carrying on the bebop tradition has been alto saxophonist and composer Charles McPherson, now an octogenarian. Yet, as the headline indicates this is a vastly different kind of project for McPherson who records his groundbreaking collaboration with the San Diego Ballet, an association that began in 2015. This is a family affair as Jazz Dance Suites is inspired by McPherson’s daughter Camille, a soloist in her 8th season with the prestigious dance company. Joining McPherson are, of course, top echelon players in Terrell Stafford (trumpet), Lorraine Castellanos (vocals), Jeb Patton and Randy Porter (piano), Billy Drummond (drums), David Wong (bass) and Yotam Silberstein (guitar). To be fair, the music stretches across a much broader palette than bebop, but you’ll inevitably hear those strains as well
This marks not so much a first for the art form, (as you’ll learn below) even though it is the first recording of its type for McPherson. Since 1972, McPherson has toured internationally both as a bandleader and as a sideman with the upper echelon of jazz greats such as Billy Eckstine, Nat Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis. Throughout his six decades of being an integral performer of the music, McPherson has expanded on his bebop origins and this work represents his biggest departure from that style. It contains numerous examples of improvisational brilliance while emphasizing McPherson’s writing which demonstrates a broad range of influences. McPherson’s robust, emotive tone carries the listener to a place where, even without the visual element of dancers, the music facilitates such visualization.
Donnie Norton summarizes it this way in his copious liner notes, “This album of McPherson’s ballet music includes more than a dozen previously unrecorded original compositions, featuring unique forms, lyrical melodies, refreshing harmonies, inventive rhythms and phrasing, and, of course, space for improvising. From the catch thematic material of the opener, “Love Dance,” to the final echo of the bubbling groove of “Tropic of Capricorn,” these are among the most inspiring and memorable of all of McPherson’s compositions. The variety of music on this recording, including the cool playfulness of “Delight,” the burning sincerity of “Heart’s Desire,” and the regal haze of “Song of the Sphinx,” offers an assortment of musical moods for audiences of all backgrounds, and it invites listeners to visualize their own shapes, colors, and movements as the music unfolds.”
There are two major suites, each around a half hour give or take in length with one six-minute piece dividing them, bringing the total running time to 68 minutes. The first suite, “Song of Songs,” written for the ballet in 2019, is inspired by the Old Testament book of Song of Solomon and focuses on the theme of unrequited love. Each of the eight movements in the piece focus on an emotion expressed by or related to a character or specific event in the original text. The opening piece “Love Dance” introduces musical ideas that appear throughout the rest of the suite. The song begins with vocalist Lorraine Castellanos singing a melody with Middle Eastern scalar material and lyrics in Hebrew. The track features soulful solos from McPherson, Jeb Patton and Yotam Silberstein, however these solos are short, reminding the audience that this music is created for choreography, not just as a vehicle for improvisation. The second movement, “Heart’s Desire” is a showcase for McPherson’s sound and lyricism, his solo developing the emotional content of the melody, expressing the core intent of the piece through his kaleidoscopic sound. It also features a stellar piano solo from Porter, who also solos brilliantly on “After the Dance.” “Thinking of You” has some exceptionally melodic guitar from Silberstein and “Praise” is another, presenting a bossa nova setting of the melody of “Love Dance” in a duet between Silberstein and Castellanos. “The Gospel Truth” ends the suite with concentrated optimism and an ebullient volleying of solos between the front line.
The sandwich piece, if you will, is “Reflection of an Election,” written in response, and in protest to the 2016 U.S Presidential Election. This piece is a selection from McPherson’s second ballet suite, Reflection, Turmoil and Hope (which does not appear here) and was adapted from its initial orchestration for saxophone, violin, cello, and bass to be performed by a saxophone and rhythm section. Here, McPherson nods to the great alto playing of Johnny Hodges, and, by extension, the music of Duke Ellington. The piece also echoes those remarkable Charles Mingus’ blues-fueled protest-centric pieces. And Wow! McPherson is so deeply bluesy in his playing, conveying the requisite anguish.
“Sweet Synergy Suite” was the first work composed by McPherson for the San Diego Ballet. The piece prominently features jazz and Afro-Latin fusion and reflects a wide array of musical influences over its six movements. The first movement “Sweet Synergy” is a bright, animated salsa influenced piece which features trumpeter Terrell Stafford engaging in a call-and-response with the altoist. Jeb Patton delivers a blazing solo over McPherson’s changes. “Delight” has an indelible melody, employing an interweaving of unison, harmony and polyphony between the trumpet and saxophone. While some of the other compositions are more inventive, “Marionette” is notable in that it’s the closest to McPherson’s bebop style. Another highlight is “Song of the Sphinx”. The track is rich with harmonic intrigue, smoothly contoured melodies, and thoughtful rhythmic pacing. The suite concludes with the sophisticated hard bop vibe of “Tropic of Capricorn” delivering the listener back to the Afro-Latin feel that started the suite. The piece builds in intensity, with all at a feverish pitch, and is the final salvo in this work that throughout displays McPherson’s mastery of tone, phrasing, and lyricism.
In a sense McPherson has brought jazz to a full circle. In the first quarter of the 20th century, jazz was intrinsically linked to dance. With the onset of bebop, the artform shifted away from dance and towards a style that demands focused attention from listening audiences. Now, a century later, Charles McPherson has brought dance and the nuance of bebop and modern jazz together. As Charles McPherson’s daughter Camille notes “…dear reader, I invite you to listen. I invite you to let these suites move you as they have moved me. Let them tell you a story; let them stir your soul. And know that all of them were inspired by, conceptualized with, and danced to with the purest, boldest love imaginable.”
For its highly imaginative compositions and the sterling emotive range of McPherson’s playing, this represents not only a signature work in McPherson’s storied catalog, but one that should receive high consideration on year-end lists.