Jazz releases have Colorado credentials

By Bret Saunders

POSTED:   03/08/2015 12:01:00 AM MST

Several of the more exuberant 2015 jazz releases are packed with Colorado credentials. So much attention is paid to local rock success stories that it's easy to overlook some of the improvisation-minded performances that tend to be more cerebral, and perhaps ultimately more rewarding for the listener.

Rudresh Mahanthappa has gone on to widespread critical acclaim since his Boulder childhood, and the alto saxophonist continues his winning streak of recordings with "Bird Calls" (ACT). The "Bird" in the disc's title is Charlie Parker, an artist whose legacy has to be considered by virtually any serious student of the jazz alto. Mahanthappa doesn't just sail through a collection of well-worn Parker covers, however. Instead, he takes his own new compositions conceived in the spirit of Parker's still-stunning improvisations and filters them through his own sensibility and an energetic quintet.

Mahanthappa still sounds as much like Ornette Coleman and other free players (do I hear a touch of Jimmy Lyons in there, Rudresh?) as he does Parker. "Bird Calls" never lets up, due in no small part to another Colorado musician: drummer Rudy Royston.

Speaking of Parker, alto master Charles McPherson is so adept at capturing his sound that Clint Eastwood hired him as Forest Whitaker's saxophonic stand-in for the 1988 biopic "Bird." McPherson has been releasing music under his own name for 50 years, and on his latest release, "The Journey" (Capri Records) he drafted an all-Denver lineup. The project has its roots in a clinic and performance at East High School, where tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman teaches. That collaboration evolved into this collection, which also features pianist Chip Stephens, bassist Ken Walker and drummer Todd Reid. The Colorado support matches McPherson note for note, and the compositions from Oxman and Stephens sound off proudly alongside standards from Rodgers and Hart as well as Parker himself. As for McPherson, he sounds as timeless as the tradition in which he's immersed. "The Journey" presents itself like one of those hard bop dates hardly anyone makes anymore.