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Posts tagged ‘Charlie Parker’

Ornithology, Murakami-style

Bird Bossa

Supernatural visitations are a regular feature of the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami, many of which also benefit from a well chosen musical soundtrack. He combines the two in an unusually intimate way in a new short story titled “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, published in the latest edition of Granta, the literary quarterly.

It begins with a student exercise in which the tale’s protagonist writes a review of an imaginary album, recorded in 1963, in which Charlie Parker — who has not, after all, died in 1955 — is accompanied by the piano of Antonio Carlos Jobim, the bass of Jimmy Garrison and the drums of Roy Haynes. The repertoire consists of well known Jobim tunes, including “Insensatez” and “Chega de Saudade”, and bossafied versions of a couple of Bird’s own classics, for which Hank Jones replaces the Brazilian at the keyboard.

The essay has been long forgotten when, after many years, its writer wanders into a small New York record store and, while browsing the racks, comes across what appears to be a bootleg version of the very album created by his own imagination. Later, while pondering on this mystery, he receives a visit from Parker himself.

Not wanting to spoil the reader’s pleasure, I’ll add only that it’s a delightful invention which reaffirms Murakami’s deep love of music — as lightly worn as ever, even when it provides the essence of the story. And the accompanying illustration, by Jon Gray, is perfect.

* Granta 148, a summer fiction special, is out now.

Bebop and Basquiat

Basquiat Bird 3

There’s only another week in which to see Boom for Real, the big Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective at the Barbican, before it closes on January 28. I left it until last week to pay my first visit and I’m going to try to go again. There’s a lot to see and I want to spend a bit more time thinking about his relationship with modern jazz in general and Charlie Parker in particular, which is what struck me most of all as I was going around the show.

Basquiat, who came to fame as a teenage graffiti artist on the streets of New York and died in 1988 at the age of 27, must have really loved Parker’s music. It can’t have been a pose. The names and phrases scrawled in many of the paintings show an intimate knowledge of Bird’s work. Crispus Attucks High School was the one Parker attended in Kansas City. Buster Smith was the alto saxophonist he admired in his apprentice years. Doris Sydnor was his third wife. Joe Albany was one of his pianists. Dial and Savoy were two of the labels for which he made his finest recordings. “Half Nelson”, “KoKo”, “Now’s the Time” and “Warming Up a Riff” were some of the tunes he cut. The Stanhope Hotel was where he died.

There’s a real feeling for jazz here. Not just Parker but Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie are referenced in the works included in Boom for Real. Basquiat’s blend of the heroic and the grotesque seems to me a fair representation of an art form that had to fight its way first into existence and then towards acknowledgement. The harshness and challenges of a jazz musician’s life are as present in the paintings as the aesthetic value of what they produce. There’s a title of a Monk tune that sums it up: “Ugly Beauty”.

“Jean-Michel says his paintings are jazz on canvas,” Jennifer Clement writes in Widow Basquiat, a portrait of the painter’s relationship with his girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, first published in 2002. There’s a passage in which, having discovered that Billie Holiday’s grave has no headstone, he spends a weekend designing one with the help of his friend, the art curator Diego Cortez, while Suzanne makes trips to get them cocaine.

There are people who don’t appreciate the way Basquiat turned street art into something for which collectors now pay vast sums. To them, the $110.5m paid for one of his canvases last May, setting a record for a painting by any American artist sold at auction, represents an insult to the history of art. But I think he did something important in getting the spirit of the music on to canvas. I wish he could have done it without feeling the need to copy Parker’s heroin habit, but I’ve felt that about a lot of people and there’s really no point. Just go and look.

* Untitled (Charlie Parker) was painted in 1983 and is in the Barbican exhibition, on loan from the Schorr Family Collection.

Strings attached

Bird with strings 2Charlie 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. 

The essence of Bird

BirdIt’s 25 years since I made the decision to avoid Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic. I’d been sent the Bird album, and the discovery that the director had found it necessary to tamper with Parker’s original recordings in order to provide his film with a technically adequate soundtrack made me angry. It seemed outrageous. How could anyone find it acceptable to strip away the piano playing of John Lewis, the bass playing of Tommy Potter and the drumming of Max Roach and replace them with other musicians playing along to the sound of Parker’s alto saxophone in a modern recording studio?  Eastwood may have been motivated by a genuine desire to pay homage to a genius of modern music, but what he and the film’s musical director, Lennie Niehaus, committed was an offence against the idea that these recordings — like any jazz recordings by an ensemble, come to that — are works of collective endeavour to which each individual part makes an essential contribution. Even if the “replacement” musicians included such irreproachable bebop-era veterans as Barry Harris and Ray Brown, it was like taking the Mona Lisa and photoshopping in the Las Vegas skyline as a background instead of the Tuscan hills of the original, just because the modern digital image was sharper. Doing it for the benefit of the film was one thing; releasing the result of this tampering as the soundtrack album compounded the offence.

Earlier this week I heard Eastwood talking about the film with the singer Jamie Cullum, who is presenting a Radio 2 series called Jazz at the Movies. Cullum is one of those “celebrities” nowadays preferred by the BBC as the presenters of radio programmes on jazz, in the decidedly un-Reithian conviction that their mere presence will attract a bigger audience. Such great broadcasters as Charles Fox and Peter Clayton, men who loved jazz, knew a great deal about it, and also knew how to communicate their authority and enthusiasm, must be turning in their graves.

Needless to say, Cullum got nothing interesting out of Eastwood, least of all on the subject of the substitution of the rhythm sections on the soundtrack of Bird. (You can hear their conversation here.) It was all too easy to imagine Fox gently and politely posing a question about the seemliness of  the exercise. But, finally, it persuaded me set my old prejudice aside and watch a DVD of the film.

Like practically all biopics, it is effectively a cartoon, a simplification and an exaggeration of the real story, but not without its merits. Forest Whitaker is a wonderful actor and gives an affecting and finely nuanced performance in a demanding role, although his voice and presence (if not his physical bulk) seem a bit lightweight for Parker, who had a rich baritone speaking voice. The excellent Diane Venora plays Chan Parker, Bird’s last (common-law) wife, whose participation in the making of the film might prompt one to question the degree of objectivity with which she is portrayed. The late scene in which Parker enters a New York theatre and discovers an old rival playing rock and roll to an ecstatic audience of teenagers is a ludicrous and demeaning invention.

I was interested in the character of Audrey (played by Anna Levine), an artist with whom Parker has an affair during his visits to Los Angeles in the 1950s. She is clearly based on Julie Macdonald, who befriended the saxophonist and was with him when he received the news in March 1954 that his infant daughter Pree had died in New York, provoking a collapse that prefaced his final decline and ultimate demise 12 months later.

During his stays with Macdonald, they discussed art and classical music and probably much else; whatever else their relationship may have been about, this was also a meeting of minds. She produced at least two remarkable sculptures based on his likeness: one, a full-length study in lignum vitae, a dark hardwood, was last heard of in the ownership of Robert Reisner, who had promoted Parker in New York clubs; the other, pictured at the top of this piece, was carved from a piece of pale, lightly striated Pasadena sandstone and weighs 275lb. She sold it in 1961 to a California collector, apparently to raise the cash to buy a Ferrari, and it is currently in the possession of William Dickson, a retired Edinburgh architect who is now a photographer and a collector of post-war jazz artefacts and memorabilia. Three years ago I wrote a feature about the piece in the Guardian, having gone up to Scotland to see it, and it is through Dickson’s kind permission that his photograph is reproduced here. Bizarrely, given its great importance and direct relationship with such a historic figure, it has never been on public exhibition.

Macdonald took her inspiration from Egyptian heads of the 15th dynasty, which she and Parker had looked at together, and Yoruba carvings of the 14th to the 16th century. In my view she evokes more of her subject’s complex and profound essence than the director of Bird, for all his unquestionably good intentions, could capture in two and a half hours of celluloid. And I’m afraid I still can’t forgive Eastwood for erasing the sound of those great musicians with whom Parker created his masterpieces.