Bird at 100
KC’s Bobby Watson leads the way on this tribute to Charlie “Bird” Parker, who would have been 100 now, had he lived a longer life. (Parker died at age 34 in 1955.) And, as you may know, a whole string of celebrations commemorating Bird’s life and art take place in KC this summer. Bird was born in KCK, cut his musical teeth in the clubs in KCMO (such as on Vine Street), and then traveled far and wide, notably spending time on both coasts (CA, NYC), helping to define and elevate bebop to new heights. In part, Bird helped envision and write a new and defining chapter in the history of jazz.
More than hints at Bird’s soloistic virtuosity, complex harmonics, and rhythmic complexity can be heard on this new and exciting album recorded live at Smoke in Brooklyn. Three international stars on saxophone, Bird devotees, are featured: Watson, Vincent Herring, and Gary Bartz. Three of the tunes were penned by Bird, and the others are tunes Bird played and loved or are stylized dedications, such as Watson’s “Bird-ish,” on track two.
At times, the saxes employ Bird’s lightning-quick licks, notes grouped tightly together like grapes, but mostly the stars affect Bird’s style within their own long-standing Bird-shaped sounds. As Watson says in the liner notes (penned by Ted Panken), “[Pianist] Walter Davis told me years ago that if Bird or Bud came back and heard us playing everything exactly like he did it, he would say, ‘Yeah, baby, I hear you; you sound good. But I did that 50 years ago. Don’t you have anything of your own?’ Over the years, when I play a Bird tune, I try to make it mine and do it my way.”
The album is characterized by burnin’ bop tunes and languorous ballads, the types of tunes for which Bird was known, reminding this reviewer of Bird’s Dial recordings. The rhythm section sounds at once modern, but with a golden age bop feel—frenetic, but efficient on the swift tunes, and with a lot of fiery, bluesy swing. For the uninitiated, you could drop the needle on a few of these tunes and confuse them with classic live sessions with Bird, such as the opening track, “Klactoveedsedstene.”
As Panken writes of Parker, “no tempo or key modulation or harmonic pattern could faze him…as Louie Armstrong had done twenty years before him, Parker wrenched the collective sensibility of jazz in a new direction with his aesthetic decisions and virtuoso flair.”
That flair and now-common language can be heard across this album. Bird’s living legacy can be heard not only in these tracks on this album, but across the spectrum of modern jazz as well as specifically in the masterful volumes of artistry created by Watson, Herring, and Bartz. There’s a reason these three are on this date; their knowledge of Bird and his influence runs deep. It’s a lively, unforgettable album, the kind of tribute Bird richly deserves. And, as a Bobby Watson fan, it’s one you’ll want.
The album’s personnel: Watson, Herring, Bartz (alto sax); David Kikoski (piano); Yasushi Nakamura (bass); and Carl Allen (drums).