The annual "August is Charlie Parker Month" festivities at the Jazz Showcase wouldn't be complete without a visit by Charles McPherson, a septuagenarian alto saxophonist who was in strong form on Thursday evening.
McPherson long has presented what could be considered a high-sheen, idealized view of Parker's musical language, the luster of McPherson's tone matched by the urgency of his lyricism. He plays almost everything big, bold and bluesy, his gleaming sound appealing in all musical contexts.
So even though McPherson opened his engagement with mostly the same repertoire he played last year at this time, the innately charismatic nature of his playing proved quite effective.
McPherson began with a Cole Porter standard, "What Is This Thing Called Love," immediately showing the hallmarks of his work. Anyone who has heard him before had to recognize the ripe tone, fleet lines and plaintive long-held notes that are McPherson signatures. All of this gave the Porter tune a fervor it needs but does not always receive.
Chicago pianist Willie Pickens excelled here – and elsewhere – the sheer tonal weight of his sound a marvel to behold considering the quick tempo McPherson had set. Add to this the complex, streaked-with-dissonance nature of Pickens' chord building, and you had precisely the kind of pianist that McPherson needs: a two-fisted musician who can stand up to him.
Lest anyone think McPherson was just going through the motions on a well-worn standard, he surprised the audience — and likely the band — with an unconventional, unpredictable coda. Here McPherson pushed into strange harmonies and unmetered rhythms, very nearly taking the tune "outside," as jazz musicians often describe this kind of playing. Pickens was right there with him, producing big, smashing chord clusters and unusual, fragmented lines.
Some of the most effective music-making unfolded in "Lover Man," another piece McPherson revisited from last year. This time he cast the classic ballad on the largest possible canvas, offering an immense sound, grand gestures and soaring lines. At times, he pushed into the upper registers of his instrument, yielding sharp, rasping sounds befitting the emotional tenor of the tune. Pickens matched McPherson in intensity, while bassist Larry Gray crafted beautifully arched lines and drummer Makaya McCraven kept rhythm pressing forward.
Once again, McPherson concluded with an off-the-charts coda, drawing growls and cries from his alto. No one knew exactly where this was heading, the rest of the quartet following McPherson's changes of direction surprisingly well, considering the mercurial nature of this work.
Only in Thelonious Monk's "Off Minor" did the band sound less than persuasive, the tune's tricky rhythms and idiosyncratic chord changes perhaps a bit much for an opening set in which McPherson and friends were getting musically acquainted.
But the band quickly recovered, playing music of Dizzy Gillespie with all the fire and drive one had come to expect. In all, a vivid performance from McPherson and the Chicago players. If this is how they sounded on opening night, they should be igniting the place by the weekend.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 Court
Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com