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Vincent Herring/Bobby Watson/Gary Bartz: Bird at 100 (Smoke Sessions)

A review of the trio's Charlie Parker Tribute album

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Vincent Herring/Bobby Watson/Gary Bartz, Bird at 100
The cover of Bird at 100 by Vincent Herring/Bobby Watson/Gary Bartz

His recorded body of work the holy scripture of bebop saxophone, alto giant Charlie Parker has been the subject of hundreds of tribute albums since his death, far too young, 64 years ago, as Ted Panken points out in the liner notes to Bird at 100. For the latest disc honoring Parker, three of the finest inheritors of the Bird tradition shared the stage at Smoke Jazz Club in New York in August for shows celebrating what would have been the honoree’s 99th birthday.

It’s partly cutting contest, partly joyful invocation of the spirit of Bird, as Vincent Herring, Bobby Watson, and Gary Bartz variously take solo flights and offer three-part harmony readings of Parker’s dizzying melodies. Among the album’s greatest pleasures are the pieces with the simplest foundations, including “The Hymn.” The speedy gospel-tinged blues has the alto men sound the theme unaccompanied before the rhythm section comes in to drive roaring solos; Herring’s ends with a figure repeated by Watson at the start of his improvisation, and Bartz’s heady outing cues extended open space for drummer Carl Allen.

“Yardbird Suite” is here, of course. It’s a relaxed version, at 11 minutes the disc’s longest track, with the saxophonists trading off on the sections and giving the bass player some. Allen, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and pianist David Kikoski groove hard here and throughout. Each of the leaders gets a ballad feature too. Herring is alternately elegant and sultry, leaning hard into the long notes on “Lover Man”; Watson fronts “These Foolish Things” with a series of fortunate twists, sans band; and Bartz, too, goes it alone at the start of “April in Paris” before injecting new life into the old, familiar melody. It all amounts to a frequently thrilling saxopalooza. Sequel, anyone?

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Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. The debut CD from his band, Acme Jazz Garage, gained airplay on about 35 radio stations across the US.