Hearing Charles McPherson for the first time was like discovering treasure. As a high school student just getting serious about studying jazz and learning how to improvise, I had listened to many of the jazz masters recommended to me by my teachers and friends. I loved them all, but Charles’ playing was uniquely thrilling and without comparison. Indeed, since making his recording debut as a leader more than fifty years ago, he has forged a singular voice that has influenced countless musicians and jazz fans.
Illusions in Blue features McPherson’s virtuosity at its most inspiring. Recorded in 1990 at a nightclub in La Jolla, CA, it is a masterpiece that perfectly demonstrates the vitality of one of his live performances. His sound, melodicism, rhythmic inventiveness, and harmonic daring are presented at such an astonishing level, a handful of listening sessions will only begin to scratch the surface of this album’s depth. He is accompanied by a rhythm section of familiar collaborators who all provide invaluable contributions to the album’s greatness, including Randy Porter on piano, Jeffrey Littleton on bass, and Charles McPherson, Jr. on drums.
Not only is this a showcase for McPherson’s saxophone playing and improvisational brilliance, it is a testament to his immense skill as a composer. All of the selections were composed by him, vehicles for improvisation created by the master himself. “Illusions in Blue” is a harmonic departure from the traditional blues form with a cyclical chord progression and loose time feel, allowing him to explore his endless vocabulary with abandon. The moving performance of “A Tear and A Smile” features a broad range of dynamics and emotions that demonstrate the depth of personality of a true artist. The various manifestations of individual and collective energy in “Manhattan Nocturne” provide a fitting evocation of New York nights. “Slow Blues” (replacing “Quiet Storm” on the original release of this album) begins with a brilliant cadenza, and it is representative of a style so important to McPherson, it is featured at all of his live performances. The closer, “Bebop to Hip Hop,” develops from its motivic melody into an astonishingly endless supply of rhythmic and melodic inventiveness, a perfect summary of the greatness captured on this date.
-Donnie Norton, 2015
(Donnie Norton is the author of the doctoral dissertation “The Jazz Saxophone Style of Charles McPherson: An Analysis through Biographical Examination and Solo Transcription.” He teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota State University-Mankato, and Spoon River College.)