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A Curmudgeonly View of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

Why did the final day of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival at Tompkins Square Park feel so tired? For one, because the order of bands was ass-backwards. Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who opened, should have headlined: she and her quartet built an energy that, for many reasons, none of the other acts matched.

The relatively small size of the crowd was also a factor. Sure, there were a lot of people gathered down front, but there was never a problem finding space on the lawn, and the perimeter was deserted. To the west, a homeless guy with wireless speakers was blasting the Carpenters. To the east, a strolling brass band had conveniently picked the afternoon of the festival to compete with Benjamin’s all-Coltrane set during the quietest moments. If Kenny G had been onstage, that interference would have been welcome. But he wasn’t. How classless and uncool!

And as a rock musician would say, other than pianist Fred Hersch, everybody else was playing covers.

Drummer Carl Allen can bring the highest echelon talent wherever he wants, considering the size of his address book.. But the potential fireworks between trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonist JD Allen never materialized, each reading charts throughout a wide-ranging set of material associated with Art Blakey. Allen was more chill behind the kit than Blakey ever was, and the horns (and spring-loaded bassist Peter Washington, and pianist Eric Reed) went for cruise-control rather than friendly sparring – or otherwise. It was lovely – and it sounded as old as it was.

Ageless tenor saxophonist George Coleman thrilled the crowd with a viscerally breathtaking display of circular breathing throughout one persistently uneasy modal interlude, leading an organ jazz quartet. In another moment, he and his alto player conjured up the aching microtonal acidity of Turkish zurlas. Organist Brian Charette was having a great time bubbling and cascading while the bandleader’s son shuffled and swung and shimmered on his cymbals. But as much veteran talent was on display here, it was mostly Charlie Parker covers.

Benjamin has a bright, brassy, Jackie McLean-esque tone on her horn and a killer band. Pianist Sharp Radway is both sharp and way rad: with his crushing low-register chords, endlessly vortical pools of sound and modal mastery, he was the highlight of the festival. Bassist Lonnie Plaxico walked briskly and pedaled and eventually went to the deepest part of the pocket and stayed there while drummer Darrell Green played much more chill than Elvin Jones ever did with Trane’s band. Benjamin’s decision to work her way up from brooding chromatics and modes all the way to a hypnotically swaying A Love Supreme – with guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn – was also smart programming. Spiraling and bobbing and weaving, her homage to every saxophonist’s big influence (and sometimes bête noire) was heartfelt and affecting. It also would have been fun to have heard some of her own material: she’s a very eclectic writer and a good singer too.

Maybe the sound guy expected Hersch to savage the keys like Radway did, but he didn’t, and for that reason a lot of his signature subtlety got lost in the mix. Bassist John Hebert’s mutedly terse pulse was often considerably higher, and drummer Eric McPherson – one of the great kings of subtlety – was sometimes almost inaudible. Attack aside, Hersch’s signature mix of neoromantic glimmer, wry humor and gravitas is actually a lot closer to Radway’s style than might seem apparent. Hersch deserved more attention, so that we could have given it back to him more than it seems we did.

A Mesmerizing Start to the Final Installment of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival

The final night of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival this past weekend was front-loaded. Young lions and then a veteran lioness set the bar impossibly high for whatever followed. By five in the evening, the usual wall-to-wall mob that has come out for the festival’s original flagship space, Tompkins Square Park, hadn’t materialized. Maybe it was the stormclouds overhead. Maybe, more ominously, the shrinking turnout reflects how many of the longtime East Village residents who supported this festival year after year have been driven out by gentrifiers. As we all know, gentrifiers have no interest in the arts: there’s infinitely more perceived immortality in taking a selfie in front of a hundred dollar brunch spread than while watching some guy blowing weird notes on a horn at a show which costs nothing to attend.

So an aging bunch of East Village holdovers (that’s what they call us), kids and tourists got to revel quietly in the trio of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, tenor saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross, teamed up with drummer Craig Weinrib, conguero Roman Diaz and a slinky bassist throughout a set that shifted artfully from rapturous, misty atmospherics, to tantalizingly allusive Afro-Cuban grooves punctuated by darkly masterful solos. O’Farrill set the tone, leading a hazy, distantly disconcerted tone poem to open the show, then finally brought it back at the end of their roughly 45 minutes onstage. In between, they reinvented hauntingly elegaic Coltrane as AACM cloudscape, spiced with wickedly incisive Arabic-tinged modal horn work, Then they took a jaunting, biting clave theme and made a lattice of disorienting polyrhythms out of it. The bassist managed to hold the center, pedaling his riffs while Weinrib and Diaz made their meticulous rhythmic negotiation look effortless. This really is the future of jazz, and it’s in good hands with these relatively young, restlessly hungry cats.

Which is not to say that ageless septuagenarian Amina Claudine Myers isn’t still pushing the envelope. What a trip it was to watch open her se by swinging her way through gutbucket Jimmy Smith B3 organ grease, leading a trio with Jerome Harris on guitar and Reggie Nicholson on drums. Then she took the party into the tectonically shifting ambience she’s best known for, building a storm on the horizon with peaks in between for stark, magisterial 19th century gospel and practically the complete Chopin C Minor Prelude. Rather than twisting the harmonies to suit the rest of the material, she played it exactly as written, letting its anguished series of chords linger. “Have mercy,” she sang over and over again throughout the set’s last number, as much a command as an entreaty.

There were a couple of other acts on the bill afterward, but pianist Orrin Evans’ originals are a thousand times more interesting than the material he was scheduled to run through as a replacement at this money gig. O’Farrill is at the Jazz Gallery on Sept 29 at 7 PM on day two of Futurefest there, dueling it out with guitarist Gabe Schnider, followed by obscure Japanese jazz unit Secret Mall and then at 10 by vibraphonist Sasha Berliner leading a quartet. Cover is $25.

Monty Alexander Brings Jamdown Jazz Full Circle at the Charlie Parker Festival

Yesterday evening at the uptown Saturday night edition of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival, Monty Alexander explained that his most recent free outdoor concert here had been in Central Park. He didn’t bother to mention that his mid-90s performance there with guitarist Ernie Ranglin was one of the landmark musical events in this city over the past 25 years.

The pianist and leader of the Harlem-Kingston Express told the crowd that when he’d been booked for yesterday’s show, he’d asked the festival organizers where he’d be playing. When he found out that it would be Marcus Garvey Park, his response was, “Marcus Garvey Park? But Marcus Garvey is Jamaican!”

The exuberant reggae-jazz icon added that he hoped the park’s name wouldn’t be changed back to what it used to be (it was still Mount Morris Park back in 1967 when Alexander led a completely different band several blocks west at Minton’s).

Shifting into serious mode, he and the group launched into an amped-up version of the Burning Spear classic Marcus Garvey. Joshua Thomas, the group’s electric bassist sang it in a strong, soulful tenor, then in a split second the group segued into So What and took the tune doublespeed.  All this dovetailed with the circumstances: Wynton Kelly, the pianist on Miles Davis’ original, was also Jamaican.

Until around the time of that legendary Central Park show, Alexander was regarded as a traditionalist and an expert at ballads. The collaboration with Ranglin, a fellow Jamaican icon, was a game-changer, and their reinvention of Bob Marley classics won both of them a global following far beyond the jazz world. Yet, as Alexander explained, he’s no less a jazz guy for loving reggae riddims. For Alexander, just like Ellington, there are two kinds of music.

This band is very much the first kind. There are two drummers, two basses and two keyboards including Alexander. Most of the time the Jamaican guys play the reggae material and the Americans do the swing stuff, but there’s plenty of overlap, and when both drummers and both bassists are going strong the sound can be epic.

One of the evening’s most anthemic, incisive numbers sounded like a version of the Abyssinians’s Satta Massagana: as with much of the other material, Alexander made a doublespeed swing blues out of it, then returned back to the original theme to wind it down. A little later, they used the opening riff from Marley’s Could You Be Loved to stir up a similar stew. 

The most riveting solo of the night was from bassist Hassan Shakur, juxtaposing crushing chords and ghostly harmonics with a bluesy drive way up the fingerboard. Drummer Carl Radle played thunderous vaudeville against the beat, all but drowning the rest of the crew during his one irresistibly fun solo moment. Similarly, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery went for adrenaline, especially during the Coltrane solo in So What; the band’s trombonist was a bluesy, more low key foil.

Meanwhile, the electronic keyboardist played mostly clickety-clack clavinova behind Alexander’s spacious chords and regal blues phrases, adding organ on the biggest hit with the crowd, No Woman No Cry. They closed with a coy calypso medley that veered into Hava Nagila for a few bars, Alexander spiraling around on his melodica.

This was a tantalizingly short set, especially for these guys, which may portend what’s in store this afternoon at Tompkins Square Park where the festival began in 1993. Festivities start at 3 with a trio of young guns: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. Iconic, rapturous AACM pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers follows at 4, there’s a corporate jazz act whose new pianist is way better than the last one, then postbop sax vet Gary Bartz leading a quartet to close things out at around 6. You might want to bring a folding chair if you have one because blanket space on the lawn will be limited.