Blindfold Test: Charles McPherson


“He’s constructing intelligent musical sentences that connect seamlessly, which is the most important part of linear playing,” Charles McPherson said of alto saxophonist Sonny Red.

(Photo: Antonio Porcar Cano)

“I might not have felt this way 30 to 40 years ago, but I’ve reached a point where I can hear value in what people do, even if it’s not how I’d do things,” alto saxophone grandmaster Charles McPherson said during his second DownBeat Blindfold Test. Famously a sideman with Charles Mingus between 1960 and 1972, with 24 leader albums to his name, McPherson demonstrated that he is playing as strongly as ever during a searing Charlie Parker tribute concert at New York’s Tompkins Square Park on the last weekend of August 2023. All of that at the age of 84.

Sonny Red

“Ditty” (Breezin’, Riverside, 1960) Red, alto saxophone; Barry Harris, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Albert “Tootie” Heath, drums.

Barry Harris on piano. The alto player is Sonny Red. I can’t identify the bassist and drummer. Sonny Red was from Detroit. He was seven years older than me. When I was learning how to play at 14–15, he was already the alto player in Detroit of note. He impressed me for understanding and dealing with Bird’s language. I didn’t study him, but he got my attention as someone whose level I could aspire to. I liked the tune. Sonny’s solo is impressive. He’s constructing intelligent musical sentences that connect seamlessly, which is the most important part of linear playing. From the energy of Barry’s flow, it’s probably from around 1960. 5 stars.

Steve Coleman/Von Freeman/Greg Osby

“It’s You” (StrataInstitute–Transmigration, Rebel-X/Columbia, 1991) Osby, alto saxophone; Freeman, tenor saxophone; Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; David Gilmore, guitar; Kenny Davis, bass; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums.

Something about the tonality of the composition sounds Mingus-like. There’s two alto players, but I can’t identify them. The tenor player sounds in a way like Warne Marsh, but not really. As I hear it, everybody’s rhythmic concept — the phrasing — sounds the same; the saxophone technique and articulation is spot-on. It’s not necessarily my cup of tea aesthetically, but it gets my attention. I can learn from listening to it. 4 stars.

Gary Bartz

“April In Paris” (Bird At 100, Smoke Sessions, 2019) Bartz, alto saxophone; David Kikoski, piano; Yasushi Nakamura, bass; Carl Allen, drums.

Gary Bartz. I don’t know who the rhythm section is. I hear a strong Coltrane influence his approach to playing ballads in addition to the Bird thing. Intonation is good. He’s very sensitive playing the melody. 4 stars.

Brian Lynch Big Band

“The Struggle Is In Your Name” (The Omni-American Book Club, Holistic, 2018) Lynch, trumpet, composer; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone soloist.

Randy Brecker on trumpet? Whoever it is has a nice sound. Oh, it’s Brian Lynch. The alto player has both a very vertical and modal approach. I can hear that bebop information is part of his musical self, with a strong Coltrane influence mixed in. Of course, you can’t take bebop out of Trane, because he comes from that tradition. The composition was well-played. Whatever the arranger was trying to do, they met the task. 4 stars.

Miguel Zenón/Luis Perdomo

“Mucho Corazon” (El Arte Del Bolero–Part 2, Independent Release, 2023) Zenon, alto saxophone; Perdomo, piano; Eva Elena Valdelamar, composer.

The tune is gorgeous. Something about the approach, the sound and the phrasing reminds me of later-period Lee Konitz, though it’s different. The rendition, approach and artistry were spot-on. A very sensitive interpretation, with an interesting choice of notes, all quite logical. A compelling style. I have no idea who it is. Is the pianist Fred Hersch? 4 stars.

Lakecia Benjamin

“Trane” (Phoenix, Whirlwind, 2023) Benjamin, alto saxophone, composer; Victor Gould, piano; Ivan Taylor, bass; E.J. Strickland, drums.

Kenny Garrett? Mulgrew Miller on piano? Is the alto player living? I won’t be able to identify them. I don’t know if it’s a Trane tune, but spiritually, in every way, the approach is about Trane. The alto is close to the soprano in the higher pitches, and this person’s approach relates to the way Trane played soprano — on a conscious or subconscious level. I like the articulation, harmony and choice of notes. This tune has a particular vibe, and they hold true to it. 4 stars.

Sherman Irby & Momentum

“Sybad” (Cerulean Canvas, Black Warrior, 2017) Irby, alto saxophone, composer; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, Eliot Mason, trombone; Eric Reed, piano; Gerald Cannon, bass; Willie Jones III, drums.

Phil Woods and Tom Harrell come to mind. I hear a little of Phil Woods’ nuance in the alto player’s phrasing; good sound and articulation. I liked the trumpet player’s approach. Good upper register. The improv approach seemed appropriate to what the composition is about. It’s well-thought-out. 4 stars. [afterwards] Wynton’s sound and approach have changed a bit since early on. I’m used to hearing Sherman play repertoire that’s harmonically different with Wynton’s band.

Jim Snidero

“Old Man River” (Live At Deerhead Inn, Savant, 2022) Snidero, alto saxophone; Orrin Evans, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums.

“Old Man River” is an unusual tune choice. The pianist played interesting substitutions, and moved in and out of the harmony artfully. Mulgrew Miller comes to mind again. The approach was thoughtful, almost tender — I liked the mood they evoked. The alto saxophonist understands the bebop language, and played the mood and vibe of the arrangement and the tune. 4 stars.

Alexa Tarantino

“Surge Capacity” (Firefly, PosiTone, 2021) Tarantino, alto saxophone; Art Hirahara, piano; Boris Kozlov, bass; Rudy Royston, drums.

This alto player brings Antonio Hart to mind. 4 stars. [afterwards] All the players I’ve heard today have good technique. A bunch of young, talented people have popped up, who I haven’t heard enough to be able to identify. But they all interest me. I’m going to go practice now! DB

The “Blindfold Test” is a listening test that challenges the featured artist to discuss and identify the music and musicians who performed on selected recordings. The artist is then asked to rate each tune using a 5-star system. No information is given to the artist prior to the test.

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