Inspired by Bird, Saxophonists Take Flight at Charlie Parker Fest

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Lee Konitz (left) and Dan Tepfer perform at the Charlie Parker Festival in New York City's Marcus Garvey Park on Aug. 26. (Photo: Steven Sussman)

Now in its 25th year, New York City’s annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival has evolved from a single afternoon outdoor concert in the East Village’s Tompkins Square Park to a multi-venue, five-day festival stretching from the Village to Harlem. 

This year’s Silver Anniversary celebration, the biggest and most ambitious yet, featured a dozen different bands performing in Marcus Garvey and Tompkins Square Parks and in Harlem and Village community gardens. Additional events included an evening of dance under the title Jason Samuel Smith’s Chasin’ The Bird Remixed; a recreation of the seminal Bird With Strings recording; a panel discussion with NEA Jazz Master Lee Konitz; a screening of the documentary film They Called Him Morgan; and numerous nightclub jam sessions.

Weekend festivities, attended by a total of more than 10,000 people, kicked off Aug. 23 at Marcus Garvey Park, with tenor saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman’s quartet featuring pianist David Bryant, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Alvester Garnett. The group delivered a soulful set that included several pieces by Horace Silver as well as a swinging rendition of “Cherokee” and stirring reading of “Detour Ahead.” 

It was followed by a spellbinding performance by the Anat Cohen Tentet that had the virtuoso clarinetist traversing a multicultural mélange of genres from Middle Eastern and Brazilian to classic bebop and swing, with a distinctive band that included accordion, guitar, cello, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone and a versatile rhythm section. 

The afternoon of Aug. 24 at Marcus Garvey Park got started with vocalist Charenée Wade’s group. The band, with altoist Lakecia Benjamin, pianist Oscar Perez, bassist Paul Beaudry and drummer Johnathan Blake fired off a blistering version of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” before Wade took the stage. Describing her set as “congregational music” the singer invited the engaged audience to join in clapping as she rendered several titles from the Gil Scott Heron songbook that were prescient in their relevance to the current sociopolitical environment. 

Master drummer Louis Hayes then powered his Jazz Communicators, featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton, pianist Bryant and bassist Dezron Douglas, through a hard-bopping set that began with Horace Silver’s “Silver Serenade” and continued with Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia” and Hayes’ own “Hastings Street” (a tribute to his Detroit roots). The ensemble capped things off with a fiery uptempo rendition of Silver’s “Cookin’ At The Continental,” another selection from the drummer’s new Blue Note record, Serenade For Horace.

Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science—described as “an ‘alternative jazz’ band born from a need to express the emotions and thoughts about where we are socially, historically, politically and spiritually”—executed a courageous set of thought-provoking, genre-leaping music that blended contemporary jazz with elements of hip-hop, r&b, rock and soul. 

The ensemble, with DJ/rapper Kassa Overall, guitarist Matt Stevens, pianist Aaron Parks, electric bassist/reedist Morgan Guerin and singer Debo Ray, initiated the proceedings with the leader’s “Trapped In A Dream,” which had the vocalist singing “You could be you and I could be me and we could be free,” followed by Joni Mitchell’s “Love.” Stevens’ “Pendant Longtemps” combined contrasting alt-rock sci-fi guitar with romantic piano lines. Then Carrington’s activism came to the fore with a juxtaposition of recorded voices from political activist Assata Shakur (sampled the socio-politically charged “Requiem For Shakur”) and pastor Kim Burrell (taken from an anti-gay sermon she gave titled “Pray The Gay Away”).

More than anyone else that day, it was Lee Konitz—often lauded as the rare bebop-era alto saxophonist to diverge from mimetic imitation of Bird—that embodied the musical spirit of Parker. Backed by the rhythm section of pianist Dan Tepfer, bassist Jeremy Stratton and drummer George Schuller, Konitz improvised harmonically sophisticated lines over the chord changes of the Parker-associated standards “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Body And Soul,” “All The Things You Are” and “Stella By Starlight,” along with Monk’s “’Round Midnight” and an original blues. 

Spending much of the set sauntering around the bandstand, Konitz and Tepfer engaged in a humorous game of “musical microphones,” with the pianist following the saxophonist’s movements with a mic, culminating with the pair seated center stage for a vocal duet on “Alone Together.”

The afternoon of Aug. 27 at Tompkins Square Park began with an enchanting set by vocalist Alicia Olatuja. Opening with the beautiful “Esperanza,” she captured the mood of the crowd while accompanied by pianist Toru Dodo, guitarist David Rosenthal, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jonathan Barber, blending harmoniously with the additional voices of Shadrack Pierre and Rasul A-Salaam.

Olatuja’s arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” had the audience singing along softly. Then, shifting gears, she sang in Portuguese patois on a Caribbean-tinged piece. Finishing up she revealed her powerful gospel roots with “Everything Must Change” and “Amazing Grace,” engaging the crowd in a call and response sing-along on the latter.

Saxophonist Tia Fuller followed with a set of music featuring selections from her 2012 Mack Avenue album, Angelic Warrior. Joined by pianist Shamie Royston, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn, she began on soprano saxophone, playing her “Ralphie’s Groove,” a soulfully lyrical original dedicated to her pastor, then switched to alto for her exhilarating “Breakthrough,” playing powerful Traneish harmonic lines.  Her pensive “Lil Les” managed to evoke both melancholic and optimistic moods before she ended with a bright medium-tempo vocal rendition of “Body And Soul” that evinced a decidedly spiritual character.

NEA Jazz Master Lou Donaldson was characteristically funky on his set. On his iconic “Blues Walk,” his tart-toned alto soared over the loping rhythmic backing of organist Akiko Tsuruga, guitarist Eric Johnson and drummer Joe Farnsworth. Next, it was off to the races for a burning rendition of Bird’s bebop anthem “Wee.” Paying homage to the “greatest musician of all time, Louis Armstrong,” Donaldson played an easy-grooving “What A Wonderful World” that had Tsuruga and Johnson recalling the tandem sound of Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery. Back to Bird, Donaldson hit “Parker’s Mood,” interpolating a few bars of “Blues In The Night,” then segued into his comical vocal feature “Whiskey Drinking Woman” before ending back on a funky note with his “Alligator Boogaloo.”

The weekend festivities closed out climatically with saxophonist Joshua Redman taking the stage. Beginning with his original “Vast,” his soft tenor sound floated airily over a dreamy piano motif played by Aaron Goldberg, then ascended into the horn’s uppermost register on top of the dynamically intensifying cadences of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Snapping off an uptempo rhythm he launched into the appropriately titled “What We Do” that was followed by his dramatically slow “Borrowed Eyes,” on which he soloed with narrative elocution. 

Paying homage to Parker, the band played Bird’s “Bloomdido” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” before wrapping up the weekend festivities with the appealing original “Disco Ears” that concluded climatically with a Gilmore drum solo. DB


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October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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