D’Rivera Resurrects Charlie Parker With Strings
Charlie Parker believed that his 1949 and 1950 studio sessions for Mercury Records with a small string-and-woodwind ensemble were among his best recordings. Charlie Parker With Strings consisted of two commercially successful albums of lush orchestral ballads from the Great American Songbook in which Parker’s alto sax was featured in lieu of a singer. Among the gems that emerged was the reedist’s indelible version of “Just Friends”—reportedly his favorite side ever.
The bold, experimental project was controversial: No one had tried blending bebop with strings before. Purists accused Parker of selling out, and the sessions still have their detractors, but few would say his playing on these dates was less than magnificent. This is late “Bird,” the romantic rhapsodizer at the height of his powers, whose inspired, flowing legato lines still sound almost supernatural.
For its March 9 tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings, Jazz at Lincoln Center called on alto saxophone and clarinet master Paquito D’Rivera. D’Rivera had to make some tough calls: Should he attempt to reproduce the records note-for-note, or create something entirely new, in the improvisatory spirit of Parker?
He chose to split the difference in a highly entertaining program enlivened by the maestro’s puckish wit. Not everything worked perfectly, but Bird was in the house. The capacity crowd at the Allen Room, high above Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, seemed heavily weighted with Bird devotees, some old enough to remember the real thing.
“Bird was without a doubt the most influential saxophone player ever,” D’Rivera said as he opened the show. “From Sonny Stitt to Ornette Coleman to Kenny G, there is no way that you can escape him. He invented the language. Many of us are paying our rent with what he invented.”
D’Rivera called for reinforcements from the formidable Charles Pillow, a classical and jazz oboist who doubles on alto and ably shared the soloing duties.
Opening the program with the original Jimmy Carroll arrangement of “Just Friends,” D’Rivera played the evening’s only scrupulous recreation of a Bird solo, and it was flawless. (He credited the transcription to Med Flory of Supersax, the Grammy-winning sax quartet that played harmonized arrangements of Parker solos). The lilting “Easy To Love” and “April In Paris” followed, utilizing the original string arrangements with new, wonderfully vivid solos from D’Rivera.
During “What Is This Thing Called Love,” D’Rivera explained that Pillow would play an improvised oboe solo, something D’Rivera likened in its rarity to “a barking cat.” It was the first jazz oboe solo many in the audience had ever heard, and it was both swinging and effective.
Other experiments followed, including a few classics that Bird never recorded with strings. The bluesy “Parker’s Mood” featured D’Rivera and the ensemble playing Bird’s solo in unison, a version that no doubt would have surprised and delighted Bird. Harpist Riza Printup contributed a thoughtful solo harp arrangement of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
Another experiment was less successful: D’Rivera assigned the string section to play the entire theme and solo of “Donna Lee” in unison. The results were something like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Once the strings retreated, however, imaginative solos surfaced: D’Rivera on clarinet, Pillow on alto and several members of the all-star string section, especially Christian Howes, Andy Stein, Rob Thomas and concertmaster Andrei Matorin.
Bird was unique and could electrify any room in which he appeared. Was this the reincarnation of Bird? Not exactly—but then again, he never died.