Review: Charlie Parker Jazz Festival Subtly Recalls Its Inspiration
The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival comes by its name with a blissfully casual reverence. The festival, whose 22nd edition ran over the weekend, involves free outdoor concerts in Harlem and the East Village, neighborhoods where Parker, the pioneering alto saxophonist and bebop lodestar, once lived. It always falls near his birthday. (Born on Aug. 29, he would have turned 95 this year. He died at 34.)
But the festival doesn’t uphold bebop as a rigid absolute, or impose Parker’s music as a precondition. There tends to be a refreshing absence of formal tributes among the artists on the bill, and a healthy abundance of the informal kind, sometimes as fleeting and allusive as a scrap of melody shoehorned into a solo. Usually, that’s enough.
Still, there was a welcome charge in the air at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village on Sunday evening as the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano unfurled a billowing, adroit improvisation, using elements of “Barbados,”a Parker tune. Leading a band with Leo Genovese on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Otis Brown III on drums, Mr. Lovano was dipping into “Bird Songs” (Blue Note), his 2011 Parker-themed album.
A while later, in the festival’s closing set, the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa drew from his own Parker-inspired album: “Bird Calls” (Act), released in February, and just crowned the top album in the 63rd Annual DownBeat International Critics Poll. His connection to the source material was more abstracted than Mr. Lovano’s, but that didn’t make it any less forceful.
This year’s festival, presented by the City Parks Foundation with support from the Dalio Foundation, began Thursday with a Parker-focused public conversation between Mr. Mahanthappa and the alto saxophonist Oliver Lake. The lineup at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem on Friday and Saturday included Mr. Lake’s big band; the singer Andy Bey, alone at the piano; and the organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, with his band.
Besides Mr. Mahanthappa and Mr. Lovano, the acts on Sunday’s bill stood at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum. The pianist and composer Myra Melford led a close approximation of the chamber-like group from her excellent most recent album, “Snowy Egret” (Yellowbird/Enja): Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Ted Poor (substituting for Tyshawn Sorey) on drums.
Their performance struck an unpredictable balance of rustling counterpoint and open space, alighting every now and again on a catchy premise: the Caribbean carnival rhythm of “The Strawberry,” the halting funk of “Promised Land.” Ms. Melford is justly regarded as a fixture of the avant-garde, but in this band, with resources like Mr. Ellman’s light-fingered precision and Mr. Miles’s mournful but succulent tone, she strives for dynamic approachability. The crowd was ready to meet her halfway.
No such effort was needed during an opening set by Michael Mwenso, a singer and bandleader affiliated with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and given to an unabashedly stagy pep. His vocal style, like his arrangements and physical movements, evoked classic Motown as filtered through an acoustic jazz sensibility: sharp, ecstatic, tidy.
Mr. Mwenso’s band included smart young musicians like the tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, and he welcomed a small parade of guests, like the blues singer Brianna Thomas and the tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman. For a finale, Mr. Mwenso gave his coyly theatrical take on “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which took flight mainly during a cameo by the pianist Jon Batiste, who sneaked in a nod to Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” before pivoting toward a New Orleans blues dirge.
In the end, the standout performance was Mr. Mahanthappa’s, which made potent use of corkscrew melody and roiling groove. His band features the trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and during an original called “On the DL,” their chatter suggested a bop aesthetic upgraded for advanced new biorhythms. Behind them, the rhythm section — Matt Mitchell on piano, Thomson Kneeland on bass and Rudy Royston on drums — worked brilliantly to flesh out the chantlike foundation of the tunes, warding off any sensation of stasis.
Parker was, at most, a spectral presence in Mr. Mahanthappa’s compositions. But the connection was obvious on “Talin Is Thinking,” a brooding ballad that reframes one of Parker’s signature phrases, and grew here into a pocket epic, respectful but unbound.
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