American lives have no second acts, said Scott Fitzgerald, but tenor saxophone player Charlie Parker barely made it through his first. In his short life he pushed himself to the absolute limit. He quarrelled with his fellow players, was incarcerated in a mental hospital, and so overindulged in narcotics that he effectively killed himself. Along the way he created a huge number of blazingly original recordings that helped change jazz. When he died at the age of 34 the bemused doctor guessed his age at somewhere between 50 and 60.
Add to that the difficulties of an African-American in the days of segregation, and jazz’s colossal transformation during his lifetime from popular entertainment to recondite art form, and it’s easy to see why Parker (or “Bird” to use the nickname fellow players gave him) has a fascination beyond jazz circles.
The number of Parker-inspired albums made by younger musicians just grows and grows; the latest comes from American tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, one of the indisputably great players on the instrument. Born in 1952, he’s now one of jazz’s amiable elder statesmen; among sax players only Sonny Rollins and one or two others can pull rank.
The new album Bird Songs brings together his current quintet, US Five, which unusually has two percussionists (Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela), pianist James Weidman and star bass player Esperanza Spalding.
For Lovano, making this album was a return to an old love. “I learnt to play saxophone with my Dad, and he and all the players around him were Parker freaks. When I started to play professionally it was Parker’s tunes I began with. “There’s a joy in that music that just captures you, and I’m hearing new things in it all the time.”
The album squares up to many classic Parker numbers, which in the early Forties helped define a new kind of jazz known as bebop.
The easy-going rhythm and full sound of swing was replaced by a mall-group intensity; as much mental as physical. Parker’s licks teased out far-flung harmonic implications of a chord sequence, leaping from one “foreign” note to another with breathtaking speed. Older jazz musicians were bewildered. “All them weird chords which don’t mean nothing… you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to,” complained Louis Armstrong.
Lovano’s versions were bound to be interestingly different, if only because as a human he’s the polar opposite to the raddled, chaotic Bird. Big-boned and tall, often dressed in white suits, he looks on stage like a prosperous Italian wine-seller. Everything about him is slow, easy and measured: his speech, full of references to “the cats”, his ruminative and harmonically subtle playing, and his rise to fame.
So unsurprisingly the irascible energy of Parker’s version of Donna Lee is softened. “I grew up playing Donna Lee the way everyone did, like a fast bebop, but you know, that was more the tune playing me than me playing the tune. I just played it over and over and noticed some harmonic things I wanted to bring out.”
What is surprising is Lovano’s version of Yardbird Suite. Parker’s recordings typically last around three minutes, in Lovano’s version it comes in at just under 12. “I was playing around with the tune and one day I tried it like a hymn or a spiritual. It really hit me how beautiful it was, and it tied in somehow to John Coltrane’s preference for things that were hugely stretched in time.”
This might make it sound as if Lovano has pulled Parker’s compositions forward in time, reflecting jazz’s later history.
But sometimes one gets the opposite sense, as if he’s taken them back to a more relaxed, pre-bop era. And this ties in with one of Lovano’s deeply held convictions. For him jazz is a genuine tradition, which means that all of it is alive simultaneously in the music of anyone who’s been nurtured within it.