New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Bird With Strings Reinvented Live at the New School

Wednesday night the New School auditorium on 12th Street drew a sold-out crowd for a live recreation of the Charlie Parker With Strings albums that transcended the originals. Sixty-plus years after they came out, the controversy hasn’t dimmed. Some see the two records as vital cross-pollination and a paradigm shift, others dismiss them as schlock and an ugly precursor to the syrupy orchestration that ruined a whole bunch of Sinatra and Wes Montgomery records. The involvement of Mitch Miller as orchestrator only bolsters that second argument.

The genesis of the albums is clouded as well. Conventional wisdom is that Charlie Parker, a huge Stravinsky fan, wanted to record with an orchestra. Was it time constraints, lack of label money, or the fact that Miller wasn’t able to round up an orchestra either capable or willing to play bebop, that explains why the songs chosen for the album are standards rather than Bird originals? We’ll never know for sure.

What was most strikingly rewarding about this performance was how much more present the strings were, compared to the original, rather tinny analog recordings (scroll down for a list of the talented up-and-coming New School students who pulled off this mighty feat). And as conductor Keller Coker told the crowd with not a little pride, this group swung the hell out of the music. For many students on the classical track, that’s a genuine stretch.

The role of Bird himself – thankless task? Monumental challenge? – was assumed by alto saxophonist Dave Glasser, who approached it with unselfconscious bliss. All but a couple of these songs are ballads, a showcase for Bird in what was becoming increasingly rare lyrical mode, and Glasser gave them every bit of elegance in his valves, more than ably channeling those graceful blue notes. He also duetted amiably and eruditely with guest trumpeter Frank Owens on a bouncy Dizzy Gillespie number – the lone tune on the program that wasn’t on the original albums.

The most striking performance was the lone number written specifically for the original sessions, Neal Hefti’s Catskill bossa nova Repetition. Dynamic shifts were strong and seamless when the orchestra would kick in or out. Oboeist Dave Briceno played Milller’s own parts with a crystalline clarity that surpassed the originals, and pianist Michael Sheelar contributed nifty, dancing solos when given a tantalizingly brief few bars. Alongside him, bassist Joshua Marcum and drummer Adam Briere walked, shuffled and swung tirelessly, in period-perfect early 50s mode.

And big up to the rest of the orchestra: violinists Daniel Zinn, Nathalie Barret-Mas, Sesil Cho, So Young Kim, Chloe Kim and Yukiko Kuhara; violists Hsuan Chen and Seo Hyeon Park; cellists Juie Kim and Mark Serkin; horn player Josh Davies, harpist Skyla Budd and guitarist Nick Semenykhin.

This performance was part of this year’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, celebrating its 25th anniversary as a New  York institution. The festival continues tonight at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem at 7 with saxophonist Camille Thurman and her combo, followed by stellar reedwoman Anat Cohen’s Tentet

An Ecstatic North American Debut By Colombian Legend Emilsen Pacheco with Bulla En El Barrio at Lincoln Center

In his North American debut at Lincoln Center last night, legendary Colombian bullerengue bandleader Emilsen Pacheco – the guy who wrote the Ibuprofen Fandango  brought his relentlessly energetic personality and wry sense of humor to a sold-out audience of expats from his native Colombia along with many cognoscenti from the New York music scene (Innov Gnawa’s Samir LanGus and saxophonist Aakash Mittal were both spotted in the crowd). Backed by Bulla En El Barrio, New York’s only bullerengue group, Pacheco validated the herculean effort it took to get him here. Lincoln Center impresario Viviana Benitez explained that a grant from APAP and a Colombian record label, among others, were involved.

It was definitely a painkilling show. The men and women of the group took turns twirling in front of the band over hypnotic, echoing handmade drums (tambor alegre and tambor llamador) and handclaps, and quickly got the audience involved. Isn’t it funny how in this age of corporate hail-mary passes at monopolizing live music, it’s the most interactive, ancient styles that always draw the biggest audience response?

Bullerengue is the oldest African style of music in Colombia. Like its distant cousin gnawa, it’s a hypnotically pulsing call-and-response style with origins in sub-Saharan Africa. At this show, that meant an ever-increasing choir responding to Pacheco’s vocal riffs, demands, implorations and exaltations – and eventually, his masterful, hard-hitting beats on the drums. After he’d highfived the crowd on the way in, he held down the left side of the stage, swaying and half-crouching, decked out in a colorful print shirt and straw hat. It was a deliriously inspired collaboration, party music reflecting transcendence over the rigors of coastal working-class life and through centuries before, on another continent.

“I’m the guy for you,” was the message Pacheco used to get the party started. As the show built steam, the rhythms shifted through brisk triplets to a trance-inducing four-on-the-floor, to trickier polyrhythms from the group’s percussionists. Love, seduction, drinking and the precarious state of Colombian coastal family life were common themes: Pacheco and the group seem to love all of them equally.

Eventually, Bulla En El Barrio leader Carolina Oliveros  – a protege of Pacheco during her time in Colombia – took over the mic and led the choir, which by now seemed to be half the audience. Once Pacheco had taken a seat behind the drums, it seemed that the giant wave of swaying bodies in front of the stage knew all the words by heart – and they responded just as feverishly to Oliveros’ originals. She explained that Pacheco is one of the few remaining keepers of the bullerengue flame – this was “A dream come true,” she said, thanking Benitez for believing in the craziness of staging a show like this in New York in 2017.

If you missed this party, Pacheco and the band are at C’Mon Everybody this Saturday, August 26 at 9ish; cover is $12. Then they’re at Barbes at around 9:30 PM on the 28th and on the 29th they’ll be at Terrazza 7 in Queens at 8 for $20.