Highlights of This Year’s Charlie Parker Festival
The way to approach the Charlie Parker Festival in its early years was to show up early, not only because Tompkins Square Park would be packed. If you were lucky, this being the pre-internet era, you’d find a flyer that would give you an idea of whether to spend the afternoon in the park or at Lakeside Lounge around the corner. Often the bill would be so good that the bar wouldn’t even be a consideration until after the show was over. Then the festival became a two-day thing that started uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, winding up the next day downtown, which was twice as cool – a whole weekend full of mostly top-level, big-name jazz, for free. But recent years have not been so kind. Last year’s initial slate was cancelled by Bloombergian edict in anticipation of a hurricane that mysteriously never arrived; the substitute lineup that the promoters cobbled together a few days later for a single Harlem show slipped under most everyone’s radar. This year’s festival continued a downward slide, mirrored by the size of the crowds. Although all the seats uptown were taken by mid-afternoon, downtown seemed to be more poorly attended than ever, no great surprise considering what the bill had to offer in terms of star power and otherwise. If Lakeside was still open, Sunday would have been about about 80% Lakeside and 20% festival.
But over the course of the weekend, there were plenty of memorable moments. Saturday’s bill began with drummer Jamire Williams’ quartet Erimaj. The only thing in their set that alluded to a past prior to about 1967 was a sample from Charlie Parker – who sounded long past his prime whenever the snippet happened to be recorded, Kris Bowers stepping on him with a beautifully lingering series of lyrical piano phrases as he’d continue to do alongside Williams, Vicente Archer on bass guitar, guitarist Matt Stevens on Les Paul and Jason Moran guesting on Rhodes on a funk number. The opening number, aptly titled Unrest, saw Williams rising from tense, portentous In a Silent Way atmospherics to an increasingly agitated state, pushed further in that direction by Bowers’ elegantly biting phrases and Stevens’ crying single-note accents. From there they segued into a radically reinvented, basically rubato take on Ain’t Misbehaving, with fractured lyrics delivered haphazardly by the bandleader as he created a snowy swirl with his hardware, Bowers moving to Rhodes for a bubbly two-chord vamp out. Moran then came up to take over the Rhodes on a steadily paced funk number that evoked the Jazz Crusaders right before they dropped the “jazz.” Stevens’ Choosing Sides set a potently crescendoing, anthemic rock tune to a trickier tempo, then the guitarist went off on a long, meandering tangent, playing endless permutations off a single string in the same vein as 90s indie rock stoners like Thinking Fellers Union. Sometimes rock and jazz are like the sheep and the wolf that you’re trying to ferry across the river along with the lettuce. This was one of those case where the boat wouldn’t hold all three, with predictable results. They went back to the pretty straight-up, echoey Rhodes funk to close it out with an amiably energetic groove.
After a set of standards and soul hits by chanteuse Rene Marie and her trio, a well-liked local attraction, 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes practically skipped to the front of the stage. Playing with the vigor of a man half his age and working the crowd for all it was worth, he took his time getting going, choosing his spots, leaving all kinds of suspenseful spaces for the Fountain of Youth Band: Jaleel Shaw on alto sax, Martin Bejerano on piano and a bassist who took considerably fewer chances than his bandmates. It didn’t take long for Haynes and Bejerano to engage in clenched-teeth polyrhythms, the pianist quoting Brubeck’s Camptown Races and then Monk, Shaw – who rose gracefully to the impossible task of filling Charlie Parker’s shoes alongside Bird’s old drummer – weaving his way expertly into a climactic series of trills.
Haynes is the prototype for guys like Tyshawn Sorey, who rather than banging a beat out of the kit, let the sound rise from within: his big, boomy sonics bely the fact that he’s actually not wailing all that hard. That became key to a long, stunningly energetic solo that Haynes eventually used for comic relief as he spun in his seat, dashing from tom to tom, telling the crowd that, no, it wasn’t over yet and he’d let them know when it was. They did a couple of pretty ballads, the second, Springtime in New York rising to a brisk latin pulse, Shaw finally cutting loose with a raw shriek after playing steady, thoughtfully bright bop lines all afternoon, Bejerano taking it back down into darker modal territory before a brief duel with Shaw and a clever series of false endings. All that made their blithe, carefree, casually allusive take on Ornithology seem almost like an afterthought.
Opening Sunday’s festivities with a trio set featuring bassist Philip Kuehn and drummer Kassa Overall, Sullivan Fortner made no attempt to bond with the crowd; he let them come to him. And they did, throughout an enigmatic, introverted, quietly fascinating set. From the still, meditative solo introduction to Thelonious Monk’s I Need You So, the pianist – best known at this point for his work with Roy Hargrove – reinvented it as a tone poem, taking his time building it with stately clusters and big banks of block chords. As he would do throughout the show, Fortner turned the tune over to Kuehn early on, who responded simply and effectively, a potently melodic foil to Fortner’s nebulous sostenuto. An original, Purple Circles built from a similar atmospheric backdrop to hints of a jazz waltz and then samba, once again putting the bass front and center for a long, incisive solo. They took the old standard Star Eyes from rubato expansiveness to a casual bounce, up and then down again. From there they picked up the pace and swung, took a memorable diversion into a beautiful ballad (anybody know what that one was?) and closed with a original that pretty much summed up the set, Overall’s animated swing and Kuehn’s sometimes incisive, sometimes hypnotic pulse walking a tightrope between contrast and seamlessness with Fortner’s opaquely lit chromatics.
And that was pretty much it for Sunday. There was poetry – really, really bad poetry, which no jazz could redeem. There was one of those selfconsciously fussy, arty bands, there was a crooner, and also Patience Higgins and the Sugar Hill Quartet, who excel at what they do – but where they excel the most is on their home turf, after the sun goes down, where it’s a lot easier to get close to the stage and feed off their oldschool energy. At times like this Lakeside becomes even more sorely missed.
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