"Bird with Strings" flies high on the opening night of 2012 Charlie Parker Jazz Festival

Reviewed by Joseph Powell

As another New York summer ended as fast it came, one event that always occurs during the last weekend of August is the annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. The fact that this year's festival happen was a joy and relief all in itself. Last August of 2011, Hurriane Irene came along during the last weekend of the month and bought New York City and most of the east coast to a stand still. As a result, the festival was canceled and the organizers resheduled it for a month later as a one night event.
However, two of the orginal headliners,the rarely seen saxaphonist Archie Shepp and harmonica player Toots Thielemann couldn't be resheduled. It turned out both musicans live in Europe and had prior commintments. The weather was another problem. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, New York City was experiencing it's most rainy September in recent memory.

The concert went on as sheduled on a wet and cold Friday night September 23rd at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. I arrived to see a few dozen music lovers in attendance. I counted around twelve in the first row with their umbrellas up.
I took refuge standing with the others in the rear stand inside the Richard Rogers Amphitheater. The James Carter Organ Trio came on and performed a solid one hour set. In between the tunes, James Carter expressed gratitude to the wet audience for showing up. While the music was great, the rain never let at all. I began questioning my sanity for leaving the dry warm confines of nearby Harlem's famed Abyssinian Church where a heartful memorial was taking place for the recently departed saxaphonist Frank Foster. The reason was that I wanted to finally see the lovely and sexy saxaphonist Tia Fuller who was sheduled to perfom that night. Sadly, my umbrella collapsed at the end of Carter's set. My desire not to catch a cold convince me to leave right after the next act-pianist Kenny Werner finished his first tune.

This year the weather cooperated and the festival was able to take place. Because it was the twentieth anniversary of the festival, there were free workshops, and music panel discussions throughout the week leading up to the festival. Another bonus for the anniversary was a added night making it a three day festival.

Opening night on Friday August 24th, once again took place at the Marcus Garvey Park. It opened with a theaterical performance by poet Daniel Carlton called, "On The Wings of Yardbird." It was a story told thru verse of a World War Two vet returning home to Harlem after the war ended. It is here he discovers the music of bebop which has been developed in the neighborhood. Daniel Carlton was very good and in his vocal style showed influences of Amiri Baraka and Oscar Brown, Jr.
As Carlton was performing, a large projection screen was set on the side of the stage showing photos and film clips of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Carlton's performance piece which takes place in the post war years was a perfect lead in for the main attraction. It was a salute to the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recording. In the late forties, Charlie Parker started searching for ways to expand bebop and jazz in general. He began merging the styles of jazz and classical music together. He recorded several albums with classical musicans with his jazz groups. As the fifties began, he went out on tour with this combination of musicans.

The main event on this first night was called "Bird With Strings" and was led by conductor Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. He was backed by a jazz ensemble and a classical orchestra. This program was produced by Revive Music Group, who specialize in producing creative-concept live music shows.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson's core jazz group included Steve Wilson on alto, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Ben Williams playing the bass. Mark de Clive-Lowe handled the duties of piano, keyboards and electronics. They were backed by a large orchestra of classical musicans. A good percentage were teenage students from The New School. The theme of the concert was to play the music of "Charlie Parker with Strings" recording in it's orginal chronical order. However, it would be performed in a traditional and non-traditional modern style within two sets.

They opened with the tune "Just Friends." The playing was very lush and melodic, keeping with the original arrangement.
Steve Wilson's saxaphone playing captured the tone and spirit of Parker's sound. Tunes covered from the orginal album included, "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "April in Paris" and
"I'm in the Mood for Love." Everyone involved played well on these tunes and others. Ferguson's solid conducting was able to have the musicans create a laid back feeling thru their playing. This style went perfectly as the sun settled on this late summer night. One highlight near the end of the set was the guest appearance of tenor saxaphonist Patience Higgins. He led the New School students on a enjoyable verizon of "Autumn in New York."

The music continued after a brief intermission and the second set proved to be very musically interesting. It was almost the same tune selection as the first set. But it was done
in a retro-remix with electronics, music samples, and beat-box effects. In other words, it was a mixture of jazz, classical and hip hop elements. It can be added that Parker's voice was literally involved: audio clips of Bird speaking were sprinkled throughout the set.

"Just Friends" opened with jazz group and orchestra playing along with the retro-remix. Everyone played very fast and there were times on this tune and throughout the night that the young classical players nodded in hip hop body movements as they played their instruments. When it came to the next tune "Repetition," Atwood-Ferguson announced it would be the only tune in the set that would stay close to the orginal arrangement. A second special guest alto saxaphonist Jaleel Shaw came on abroad and led the orchestra in playing the tune very fast.

The tune "Laura" started out slow with the orchestra stretching it out in a classical vein. Jaleel Shaw came in behind on alto and gave it a more jazzy feel. All the musicans ended up swinging so hard that some members of the audience began to get up and started dancing.

One interesting highlight of the set was the playing of "Temptation." It's a lesser known tune in the "Charlie Parker with Strings" recording. It most likely gets overshadowed by the other popular standard's tune such as "April in Paris." (Which by the way played very upbeat in this second set.) Tenor saxaphonist Azar Lawrence came on stage for this tune. The opening intro of "Temptation" was handled by the string section. It was followed by Azar's solo which was very strong and long. The woodwind section joined forces with Mark de Clive-Lowe on keyboards and together they played very fast and loud. The remix of the funky beat sounds merged in with the playing. The overall playing on this tune was very intense and the arrangement was closer to strong jazz funk fusion than hip hop.

There were moments throughout this set where the entire orchestra was playing in a fusion like mode. There was also times the playing was so loud and fast, that it showed a free form which bordered on the avant-garde. One standout would be Mark de Clive-Lowe who had multi-duties with the piano,keyboards and electronics in creating a sound. His playing showed a influence of McCoy Tyner's piano vamping sound of the seventies. There were other moments with him leading the orchestra that captured the fusion sound of the CTI Record label from the same seventies period.

The major highlight of the night came near the end and was a soaring verison of Geogre Gershwin's "Summertime." The orchestra started out playing in a standard classical mode-but the playing became faster and faster as the tune progressed. The drummer Marcus Gilmore delivered a nice intense solo which turned into a long percussionist's battle between him and the drum machine. Jaleel Shaw was swinging away on the alto amid all the electronics blasting on full speed. There were vast styles of jazz, classical, electronics and hip hop going loud and fast, yet the entire orchestra was playing as one. Bird was present on stage via the audio clips and the projection video screen. The audience was also involved thru it's joyous reaction because this version had so much musical energy coming from so many different areas. It's may be safe to say that even the late band leader Gil Evans would of marvel at this piece. The orchestra played a swinging arrangement of
"Rocker" to end the concert. It was a great first night of the festival. The 2012 Charlie Parker Festival continue the next day at the park with the legendary drummer Roy Haynes headlining.
The festival closed out Sunday at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village with vocalist Gregory Porter and other sheduled musicans.

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Joseph Powell