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