Review: Celebrating Charlie Parker with panache

Yes, Charlie Parker’s music still sings, as a strong festival proves at the Music Institute of Chicago
Charlie Parker died more than half a century ago, at age 34, but his music resonates in our culture to this day.

The bebop idiom that he and others codified stands as the predominant jazz language of the 20th century and echoes in the work of young stars in the 21st.

All of which is to say that Bird, as devotees long have called him, holds a singular place in American culture and richly deserves the kind of multifaceted tribute that the Music Institute of Chicago presented over the weekend. At the heart of its Fifth Annual Jazz Festival was Friday night’s opening concert, which revisited classic Parker recordings and illuminated his influence on contemporary musicians.

The event opened with excerpts of the “Charlie Parker With Strings” music, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson taking Bird’s role, with backing from a string orchestra plus oboe and rhythm section, conducted James Setapen. This music rarely gets performed live, much less in an auditorium as intimate and acoustically embracing as the Music Institute’s Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston, making this a rare occasion to explore Parker with strings.

It would be difficult to think of an altoist better suited to this task than McPherson, for the septuagenarian musician comes closer than most to approaching the mercurial quality of Parker’s improvisations. But McPherson also brings to bear a plush, gleaming tone of his own, making his work a kind of idealized version of vintage Parker, and one that eminently suits the string-orchestra context.

To hear McPherson’s melodically ornate, tonally penetrating saxophone lines cast against the cushioned timbre of blended violins, violas and cellos was to appreciate anew the glow of this music. Parker’s foray into orchestral world was hardly the first to find common ground between jazz and classical idioms, but it surely was among the most innovative, setting the stage for uncounted jazz-with-strings recordings that followed.

The appeal of these scores, and of McPherson’s considerable contribution, was apparent from the start, in the standard “April in Paris.” The saxophonist’s radiant tone, yearning phrasings and blues-tinged sensibility recalled Parker’s original yet personalized it as well. This was music to get lost in, its sensual pleasures matched by its intellectual heft.

McPherson heightened the expressive intensity of his work in the high point of the performance, “If I Should Lose You,” the saxophonist capturing the plaintive spirit of the song but also pushing beyond that. His flurries of notes never sounded ostentatious; they floated above the orchestral texture.

That portion of the program was all about Parker’s past, and it prepared listeners to look at the present, in the form of the world premiere of Victor Goines’ “Suite for Bird.” Saxophonist Goines, a key figure in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and also director of jazz studies at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, penned this three-movement work for string orchestra but in many ways veered away from Parker’s model. Instead, “Suite for Bird” felt more like a neo-classical saxophone concerto, albeit imbued with jazz rhythm.

The first movement proceeded at a brisk tempo, its perpetual-motion spirit evoking music of Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud, early 20th century masters with an ear for jazz. But there was nothing nostalgic about this score, Goines’ tenor saxophone solos bursting with fast-flying ideas. Goines structured the movement as a series of dialogues between tenor saxophone and various groups of strings, and among the string players themselves. The back-and-forth among all of these musicians proved quite engaging, as did Goines’ airborne solos.

Some of the most softly shimmering music unfolded in the slow second movement, Goines’ lyric lines on soprano saxophone set against sweeping phrases from the string players. Here Goines’ solos came closest to hinting at bebop language, while avoiding the heat and ferocity of Parker’s work. The balance between soloist and strings, and between classical and jazz, suggested Nelson Riddle at his most subtle.

By the time Goines and friends were deep into the up-tempo third movement, at least one listener was convinced that “Suite for Bird” could become a repertory piece – and one that could serve as a fitting counterpart to “Charlie Parker With Strings” on future concerts. The opening passages for tenor saxophone and tremolo violins underscored the dramatic nature of this writing, as did an encore performance of this movement, with Goines switching to soprano and McPherson jumping in on alto.

Between the evening’s two major works, Chicago singer Tammy McCann brought luxuriant tones to “I Thought About You” and enormous, brassy big notes to “Easy Living.” She’s the rare vocalist whose stage charisma is matched by superior technique and an instrument that dwarfs just about everyone else’s, making her a bonus attraction in an already alluring night.

~Howard Reich