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 Charlesâ€™ 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 McPhersonâ€™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 albumâ€™s depth. He is accompanied by a rhythm section of familiar collaborators who all provide invaluable contributions to the albumâ€™s greatness, including Randy Porter on piano, Jeffrey Littleton on bass, and Charles McPherson, Jr. on drums.
Not only is this a showcase for McPhersonâ€™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. â€śIllusions in Blueâ€ť 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 â€śA Tear and A Smileâ€ť 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 â€śManhattan Nocturneâ€ť provide a fitting evocation of New York nights. â€śSlow Bluesâ€ť (replacing â€śQuiet Stormâ€ť 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, â€śBebop to Hip Hop,â€ť 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 â€śThe Jazz Saxophone Style of Charles McPherson: An Analysis through Biographical Examination and Solo Transcription.â€ť He teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota State University-Mankato, and Spoon River College.)