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2001 Vitoria-Gasteiz and San Sebastian Jazz Festivals

Steve Wilson

The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival has long since become a New York institution and its 9th edition displayed all the features that make it so. People come from neighborhoods all over the city and the metropolitan area to fill the Lower East Side’s Tompkins Square Park and let the music wash over them.

Not only was Parker celebrated (he would have been 81 on August 29th) but so were other giants such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and also, as the festival’s chief executive officer Sam Turvey put it, “our recently departed friends J.J. Johnson and John Lewis…and we acknowledge 100 years of Louis Armstrong for the second year running.”

The park’s tall trees made it a leafy glade on a picture perfect, late summer day, furthering the relaxed combination of camaraderie and mutual musical enjoyment. I’ve attended this festival many times and this event had one of the best and most varied lineups in its history. The well-paced production, skillfully managed by Johnnie Gary (whom some of us remember from the original Birdland) and emceed genially and informatively by Phil Schaap, helped the musicians in achieving a successful program.

There were pleasant surprises in almost every set, over and above expectations fulfilled. Joe Wilder, because of his success as a studio and Broadway theater musician, is not as appreciated as a jazzman as he should be. After the opening set, an inspired piece of booking, I know that a lot more people are now aware of the trumpeter/flugelhornist. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli always packs his radar but he and Joe also have had the experience of many shared bandstands to fuel their interaction. Wilder’s ballads are always works of songful heart but he also moves gracefully through medium and up tempos. With Rufus Reid on bass and Jackie Williams at the drums the swing was palpable on “Tangerine” and “Lester Leaps In.”

Pianist Dick Katz led a formidable trio, with bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash, that wasted no time delving into the Parker repertoire via “Yardbird Suite.” Steve Wilson joined Katz and brought his keening, muscular alto saxophone sound to “Marmaduke” and the blues, “Bird Feathers.” Helen Merrill’s combination of honey and smoke caressed “Lover Man” and Katz, in the trio setting, paid homage to his greatest inspiration, John Lewis, with a lyrical, subtly swinging version of Lewis’ “Afternoon in Paris.” The closing piece de resistance was a version of “I Got Rhythm” with Merrill singing the Gershwins’ lyric and melody while Katz and Wilson negotiated the contrapuntal lines of Parker’s “Chasin’ the Bird.” And what’s more-they carried it off!

The fountain of Parker and Bird-related material continued to flow as bassist Earl May’s combo took the bandstand. “Red Cross” and “Laura” showed alto saxophonist David Glasser (best known for his work with Clark Terry’s group) to advantage. He seemed to have a new comfort zone at uptempo without sacrificing excitement; and his ballad approach was centrally located. There was no let up in the resilient beat of May, pianist Larry Ham and drummer Eddie Locke when they accompanied singer Katherine Russell, the daughter of legendary bandleader Luis Russell (his was the orchestra that Louis Armstrong fronted in the 1930s) and bassist Carline Ray. New to me and the majority of the audience, Russell was electrifying with a big, sometimes gospel-tinged sound and a highly rhythmic delivery in two Gershwins-“I Was Doin’ Allright” and “Embraceable You”-“Just in Time” and Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” After a “Sweet Georgia Brown,” hot sauce barbecued by the quartet, she returned for a dramatic “At Last” and, when the crowd demanded an encore, reached way back and up for Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumpin’.”

Although the emotional bar had been raised high, the Roy Haynes Quintet had no trouble in clearing and raising the ante. Roy, at 76, is a center of boundless, creative energy and the aorta of any group he graces. With his son, Graham, who appears with him occasionally but is usually occupied with his own projects, on cornet and trumpet, Roy unveiled a new trio of talented youngsters: Marcus Strickland, tenor and soprano saxes; Martin Bejerano, piano; and John Sullivan, bass. Salutes to some of Haynes’ illustrious former leaders included an exuberant “Blue Boogie” for Parker (Dizzy Gillespie factored in here), Chick Corea’s “Bud Powell” (two birds with one stone) and Coltrane’s “Naima.”

By the time Joe Lovano’s ensemble came on we began to fade and decided to wend our way to the Astor Place subway station. Leaving the park we heard the strains of Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” with Joe’s clarion tenor sax unfurling from the speakers. It tempted us to return to our seats but the flesh wasn’t willing. However, the majority of the vast audience was still in place on what had been a memorable afternoon in a true celebration of a great music and some of its greatest musicians.

Originally Published