Charlie Parker’s album with strings was the record that persuaded Gilad Atzmon to become a jazz musician. “Now I wish I’d never heard it,” the Israeli-born, London-based alto saxophonist and bandleader announced at Ronnie Scott’s last night, giving his listeners a reminder of the sort of sardonic humour not regularly heard at 47 Frith Street since the club’s founder died in 1996.
Supervised by Norman Granz in 1949, and also featuring oboe, French horn and harp along with a five- or six-piece string section, the Bird with Strings sessions broadened Parker’s audience but were despised by critics. You can see why: on the face of it, this is the equivalent of covering a monastery refectory’s fine, plain oak table with a fancy lace cloth. And there’s no Bud Powell or Dizzy Gillespie or Max Roach to interact with the greatest improviser of his age. But the weird thing is how great the records sound today: Parker, who never spoke ill of the project, soars above the background, his inventions dizzyingly crammed with substance and always propelled by that extraordinary life-force.
Atzmon was performing some of the pieces from those recordings with his quartet, the Orient House Ensemble (Frank Harrison on piano, Yaron Stavi on bass and Chris Higginbottom on drums), and the Sigamos Quartet (violinists Ros Stephen and Marianne Haynes, viola-player Felix Tanner and cellist Laura Moody). Stephen’s arrangements update the work done on the original sessions by Jimmy Carroll and Joe Lipman, making effective use of the pared-down resources and creating a strong bond between the two sides of what is in effect a double quartet. They recorded some of them in the same format on Atzmon’s album In Loving Memory of America in 2009, and the following year Atzmon and Stephen joined Robert Wyatt on For the Ghosts Within, where the ghosts included the spirit of Bird with Strings.
At Ronnie’s they featured “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, all of which featured Atzmon’s pungent sound and urgent triple-time flurries, with Harrison’s delicate soloing providing the occasional oasis of calm reflection. Unlike those pieces, which remained close to the approach and mood of the Parker recordings, “If I Should Lose You” contained noir-ish sound effects from the string quartet while “What Is This Thing Called Love” came retrofitted with a trip-hop beat and deadpan string riffs. Several of Atzmon’s own compositions also varied the mix, including one called “Moscow”, from a recent album devoted to portraits of major cities, its hint of bombast capturing the sometimes oppressive ambiance of the Russian capital.
They finished with a piece that is, as Atzmon observed, one of the most beautiful of all jazz-associated tunes: David Raksin’s “Laura”, composed for Otto Preminger’s 1945 movie but transformed four years later into a vehicle for Parker’s genius, and the perfect way to end an enormously enjoyable evening of homage and rebirth.
* The photograph of Charlie Parker with his string players is taken from Gary Giddins’s book Celebrating Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), where it was used by permission of Maely Daniele Dufty and the Bevan Dufty Collection.