[JPL] Charlie Parker Jazz Festival: Cool Jazz in Harlem

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Mon Aug 25 10:29:21 EDT 2008


Charlie Parker Jazz Festival: Cool Jazz in Harlem
By WILL FRIEDWALD | August 25, 2008
There are always plenty of people to thank at free outdoor concerts such as
Saturday's 16th annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival ‹ producers, sponsors,
press partners (in this case the City Parks Foundation, Bloomberg, Time
Warner, and WBGO-FM). But only one entity deserves credit for the success of
this year's event, and that's the Big Weather Guy in the Sky, who saw to it
that the temperature in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park was bearable and the
humidity was low. In fact, this was the first Parker in memory that wasn't
excruciating; last year, it was so hot and sticky that the headliner, Abbey
Lincoln, canceled. This year, it was a breeze ‹ literally.

In fact, everyone was so grateful for the perfect weather that the whole
event seemed doubly energized. Of course, performing in front of an
appreciative, uptown crowd doesn't hurt, either. This is the place where
they invented the phrases "put your hands together" and "give it up for ...
." At least two of the four featured acts ‹ the pianist Robert Glasper and
vocalist Vanessa Rubin ‹ were as good as I've ever seen them.

Mr. Glasper and his trio (with Vicente Archer on bass and Chris Dave on
drums) began brightly with "Melody for Myself," an attractive (and as yet
unrecorded) major melody in a fast waltz time. The leader offered a couple
of solid tunes from his own two Blue Note albums, during which I was
particularly struck by his use of dynamics; Mr. Glasper imbues his solos
with a keen sense of drama by using the appropriate "pianos" and "fortes."
The set climaxed with an extended piece that he described as an amalgam of
three or four tunes, "because," he said, "I have ADD." It began with an
unaccompanied intro that referenced both stride and postmodern free playing,
led to some attractive trio sections, and included long solo "movements" for
both bass and drums.

For the next act, we transitioned from the high-energy trio to an even
higher-energy quintet. The drummer Rashied Ali is best known for his
explosive percussion work with John Coltrane's final, avant-garde ensemble
of 1965-67. But Mr. Ali's current quintet is a direct extension of the more
user-friendly music of Coltrane's earlier "classic" quartet. It is the same
band, playing some of the same music, as the one featured on Mr. Ali's 2006
albums "Judgment Day Vol. 1" and "Judgment Day Vol. 2," including Lawrence
Clark on tenor saxophone, Greg Murphy on piano, Joris Teepe on bass, with
the addition of a second saxophonist, Latitia Benjamin, on alto.

The set consisted of two deliriously fast numbers: "Skane's Refrain," which
seemed inspired by "Impressions," and "Liberia," Coltrane's own modal
reduction of "A Night in Tunisia." Separating the two was a ballad, Mr.
Teepe's very pretty "Almost Lucky," which gave everyone a chance to cool
down. Overall, this lineup plays very attractive outdoor jazz concert music
‹ mostly modal, with occasional free-jazz excursions, particularly in Mr.
Clark's tenor solos, which utilize squeaks and honks as a kind of
stagecraft. Likewise, Ms. Benjamin's tone seemed slightly out of tune (in
the manner of the late Jackie McLean), but she clearly knows how to ignite a
festival crowd and drew wild applause for every solo.

For her set, Ms. Rubin started unpromisingly with a waltz called "Music
Makes the World Go Round," which triggered my personal bias against songs
about jazz; the lyrics rather obviously proselytize for the jazz cause and
consist mostly of canonical name-dropping. Yet Ms. Rubin then demonstrated
why it's better to sing the music of the great jazz icons rather than merely
sing their praises. The high point of her 45-minute slot was an inspired
trilogy of songs by her fellow Clevelander, the vital modern jazz composer
Tadd Dameron, including his most famous ballad, "If You Could See Me Now"
(sung with the verse), and the less often sung "Never Been in Love" and "On
a Misty Night." Her singing here was subtle and knowing, totally
straight-ahead, with emphasis on storytelling and expressing emotions
without a lot of special effects. I'd never been ecstatic about Ms. Rubin's
work before, but this set-within-a-set made me eager to hear a whole program
of Dameronia.

Ms. Rubin also had the class to acknowledge Barry Harris, one of the last
remaining links to the bebop era. On Saturday, the sagacious 78-year-old
pianist closed the afternoon with what began as a genuine tribute to Charlie
Parker and ended like a Bird-inspired variety show. He brought out his
familiar trio, with the bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Leroy Williams,
plus the alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, a familiar Parker deputy who is
always willing and able to step into Bird's shoes. Mr. McPherson was billed
as a special guest but took center stage for the first part of the set, with
"Scrapple From the Apple," "Parker's Mood," and "Cherokee." He played
excellently, as always, with a sweet, Parker-esque tone, while Mr. Harris's
finest moment was a spaced out, Monk-ish blues solo on "Mood," with a side
nod to Monk's own blues, "Misterioso."

Then the Barry Harris Singers (for lack of a better moniker), an ensemble of
his students, took the stage and launched into a smooth choral reading of
"Embraceable You," on which the combination of choir and jazz piano evoked
"A Charlie Brown Christmas." The vocal soloist, surprisingly, turned out to
be Mr. Harris himself, crooning what was apparently a King Pleasure-style
vocalized lyric to Parker's classic 1947 solo on the Gershwin standard. The
singers followed with a choral version of J.J. Johnson's blues "Wee Dot,"
which was further enlivened by a pair of dancers, David Gilmore and Tina
Pratt, who were long in the tooth but light on their feet. The performance
wound up with a generic bossa nova in which Mr. Harris encouraged audience
participation, as if he were Bobby McFerrin's grandfather. I'd have
preferred a few hard-core trio numbers, but I can't say it wasn't

It was also a pleasure to attend a concert event where no one minded if cell
phones rang out, babies cried, and dogs barked. One member of the choir in a
big hat was even carrying a Pomeranian, and a terrier next to me yelped his
approval. I know, because I once had a dog who would express his misgivings
whenever I practiced my saxophone, and this little guy was clearly doing
just the opposite.

wfriedwald at nysun.com

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