Charlie Parker Fest Captures A Bit of Bird’s Freewheeling Spirit


Pianist Fred Hersch and bassist John Hébert perform Aug. 25 during the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Manhattan.

(Photo: Mark Doyle)

In the early 1950s, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker lived in a townhouse on Manhattan’s Avenue B, bordering Tompkins Square Park in Alphabet City. These days, that stretch of Avenue B is known as Charlie Parker Place, and the park hosts the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.

Despite the recognition afforded Parker, the festival hasn’t always been awash in explicit tributes to him. And this year, based on its final day of performances on Aug. 25—four days before Parker, who died at 34, would have turned 99—the festival’s 27th edition continued that pattern. But the program did offer moments of implicit homage, and all of the day’s featured artists—alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, pianist Fred Hersch, tenor saxophonist George Coleman, drummer Carl Allen and their groups—captured some element of Bird’s freewheeling spirit, albeit with a mix of styles and sensibilities.

Benjamin opened the show with a fierce tribute to John Coltrane. From the first note of “Liberia” to the last one of “A Love Supreme,” she channeled Trane’s epic energy and much of his language, while pianist Sharp Radway recalled McCoy Tyner’s sparkling lines and dense chords, bassist Lonnie Plaxico evoked Jimmy Garrison’s sharp and resonant attack, and drummer Darrell Green summoned Elvin Jones’ polyrhythmic swirl.

Benjamin also offered a dynamic take on the change-heavy “Central Park West,” which, like “Liberia,” appeared on the 1964 Atlantic record Coltrane’s Sound. For the tune, Benjamin had written lyrics and brought on Jazzmeia Horn to sing them. Horn stayed around for “A Love Supreme,” unleashing some otherworldly West African-inflected vocalizations behind Benjamin’s cri de coeur—and ended on a low and dissonant note.

It’s unclear whether Benjamin knew that she was performing on a portable stage of the kind that, in 1991, had replaced a fixed band shell that, since the mid-1960s, was a rallying spot for all manner of political protesters. But her roiling rendition of “A Love Supreme,” and her subsequent comments, suggested that she recognized the potency of the tune as a vehicle for exhorting the public toward social action through music.

“That’s what the world needs now,” Benjamin told the audience. “It’s getting ugly out here.”

If fighting ugliness was the order of the day, Hersch, who followed Benjamin in the program’s lineup, seemed up for the fight. Backed by longtime trio members—bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson—he was preaching the beauty of colloquy, between himself and his bandmates, between his right hand and his (famously deft) left hand—heard to great effect on what he called his “sideways” tribute to Parker, “Mrs. Parker Of K.C.” That ode to Parker’s mother was written by Hersch’s onetime teacher and colleague, pianist Jaki Byard, who recorded it with Eric Dolphy on his 1962 New Jazz album Far Cry.

Hersch’s innate restraint represented a distinct turn from Benjamin’s extroversion, and the impact of the pivot was palpable in the open-air setting, where carefully constructed intimacy like the pianist’s can translate less easily than in a club. But the clarity of Hersch’s ideas and his conviction in delivering them drew the crowd in, even—perhaps especially—on the oblique, but loving, treatment he gave his single solo effort, Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight.”

The third set of the day brought another change in direction with Coleman’s entrance. Having mobility problems, the 84-year-old—who preceded Wayne Shorter in Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet—remained seated for his entire set and was clearly in no mood to break new ground. But—accompanied by Adam Brenner on alto saxophone, Brian Charette on organ and George Coleman Jr. on drums—he swung effortlessly through a series of standards, a breathtaking sprint à la Bird through “Cherokee” changes that proved he hasn’t lost a step musically.

For some in the audience, the find of the day was Brenner, who quietly has been building a relationship with Coleman since the 1980s. He proved a fluid foil for the NEA Jazz Master—on barn burners, to be sure, but also on more fragile numbers like the 1932 ballad “Don’t Blame Me.” Calmly, but convincingly, he countered Coleman’s intervallic leaps, pregnant pauses and random effusions point for point.

Closing out the concert, Carl Allen’s tribute to another Parker collaborator, Art Blakey, extended the Coleman approach——swinging all the way, with few surprises outside the piquant pleasures in a masterful turn of musical phrase. Joined by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, tenor saxophonist JD Allen, pianist Eric Reed and bassist Peter Washington, the drummer kicked things along Blakey-style—with jolts aplenty and more than a modicum of joie de vivre—as the band dispatched tunes like Wayne Shorter’s “Sweet And Sour,” Clare Fischer’s “Pensativa” and the festival’s final number, the popular hit “Moanin’.”

By that time, a clutch of dancers had become immersed in an impromptu Lindy Hop at the edge of the stage. DB

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