Get ready for a summer of great jazz!
Bird with Strings
Featuring Andrew Speight
June 29, 8:00 PM
Inside Jazz pre-concert talk with Alisa Clancy, KCSM DJ, 7:00 PM
Ticket prices include all fees; what you see is what you pay.
Andrew Speight, saxophone
Matt Clark, piano
Michael Zisman, bass
Austin Harris, drums
Dawn Madole, violin
James Moore, oboe
ALEXANDER STRING QUARTET
Frederick Lifsitz, violin
Zakarias Grafilo, violin
Paul Yarbrough, viola
Sandy Wilson, cello
About Bird With Strings
Produced by Norman Granz from 1949 – 1952, the groundbreaking recordings that became the Bird with Strings discs were Charlie Parker’s biggest sellers. SJW’s Andrew Speight channels Bird as he plays the original arrangements with his favorite rhythm section. The adventurous and flawless Alexander Quartet handles the string parts with gorgeous tone, and an uncanny feeling of swing.
Sponsored by Karl & Theresa Robinson.
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Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker never fit comfortably into the uber-hipster role into which he was so often cast, the doomed genius whose candle burned too brightly, the high-flying Bird who flew too close to a blazing bebop sun and crashed to the ground. As the progenitors of bebop, Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie stood the jazz world on its head in the mid-1940s with breakneck steeplechase improvisations built upon dauntingly extended harmonic structures. While Gillespie played the media like a fox, briefly turning bebop into a cultural phenomenon, Parker found himself portrayed as the quintessential self-destructive artist, a tired cliché even then.
Bird never bought into the doomed allure of heroin addiction (though tragically many of the young players who worshipped him did). Right up until he died in 1955 at the age of 34, he took himself seriously as an artist, and refused to be constrained by the prevailing notions of coolness amongst his peers. When impresario Norman Granz gave Parker the opportunity to fulfill his long-time ambition of recording with strings, Bird eagerly proceeded despite the widespread perception in jazz circles that strings were terminally square. The resulting Mercury album, Charlie Parker With Strings was by far his most popular recording, a landmark project often imitated by rarely equaled.
“Bird studied classical music pretty intently,” says alto saxophonist Andrew Speight, who was born and raised in Australia and settled in the Bay Area some two decades ago. “He had wanted to do the string thing for a while. You can trace the roots back to Billie Holliday and an album with a small string section. That was a bit of a turning point, a black artist with strings, being featured in a ‘legitimate’ way. Then Norman Granz came along and wanted to produce Bird differently.”
A longtime professor at San Francisco State University’s School of Music, Speight has made it his mission to collect as many of Parker’s original string charts as possible. He’s performed Bird With Strings around the world, and presents the rarely heard arrangements with his hard swinging quartet and the Alexander String Quartet augmented by a third violin and oboe. Bird took the opportunity to introduce himself to a new audience by eschewing the searing blues and bebop standards he’d recorded over the previous five years. Rather than focusing on his large book of original compositions, Parker compiled a list of ballads like “Everything Happens to Me,” “April in Paris,” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.” Jimmy Carroll wrote the first batch of charts, and Mitch Miller, who was doing A&R for Mercury, did the contracting, conveniently hiring himself for the oboe chair. Recorded in November 1949, a relatively stable period of Parker’s life, the 10-inch album captures Bird playing with his usual brilliance despite arrangements that were less than state of the art compared to what top composers were doing in Hollywood.
“Parker sees the blandness and paints a beautiful picture on the top of it, fully using that contrast,” Speight says. “When he did the first album he took it very seriously, treated it like classical music. He went into the studio and the first thing he had to adjust to was the dynamics. He was used to playing in loud and raucous clubs. He had to play with a lot more dynamics, adjust his sound. Play quietly and with fire. On the other side, it’s really important to make iconic statements with the melodies like he did. The way he played those songs are the way everybody has played those melodies ever since.”
While the first album featured six tracks, the project’s success quickly led to a demand for more. Mercury released a second Charlie Parker With Strings album in 1950, and he continued to perform intermittently with chamber ensembles for several years, which meant he needed even more charts.
“Once you put an album out, then you have to tour the album,” Speight says. “But he started with only six charts, about 18 minutes of music, so they had to write some more. People like John Lewis and George Russell, Ray Ellis and Johnny Richards start saying ‘Can I write something for the ensemble?’ All of these charts start appearing, and Bird’s got lots of them in the book.”
So how did Speight end up with so many arrangements from Bird’s book? A dogged collector of jazz memorabilia with saxophones and mouthpieces once owned by various jazz legends, he always has an eye out for interesting stuff. In the late 1990s when he was director of jazz studies at Michigan State University, an elderly woman approached him to say that she had a box of old arrangements that belong to her late husband, a violinist who toured with Parker. By the time Speight got to Parker’s charts, recording with strings had become almost a rite of passage for jazz stars. After Bird, trumpeter Clifford Brown, altoist Cannonball Adderley, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and pianist Hank Jones all recorded albums with strings, to varying degrees of success. Parker’s project continues to stand out, and several other altoists have tackled Bird’s music over the years. Every one of them comes away with a deeper appreciation of Parker’s musical ingenuity.
“I talked about Parker with Phil Woods and Charles McPherson, who’ve both played this music,” Speight says. “We’re all flabbergasted because of his control. You’re instantly drawn to the beauty of the music. There’s really nothing else like Bird With Strings.”
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