Bird in the Reeds
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, December 15, 2018 – 8:30 p.m.
It's been more than 75 years since saxophonist Charlie Parker started shaking up jazz. He took the genre away from swing and danceable music and instead explored advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, altered chords, and chord substitutions.
His music was not easy to play – with fast tempos and difficult eighth-note runs – but it was far more interesting and gave more opportunities to build upon. As Parker said himself, “It's trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes. The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it. It pushes it. It helps it. Help is the big thing. It has no continuity of beat, no steady chug-chug. Jazz has, and that's why bop is more flexible.”
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra paid tribute to Charlie Parker and his compositions in the second show of their 2018-19 season. But it was Parker with a twist – not the versions you might hear in a jam session. Instead, the OJO ensemble primarily played the challenging arrangements of Parker's music written by Los Angeles composer Med Flory for his Supersax group.
On stage were five saxophonists – Sandy Gordon and David Renaud on alto sax, Mike Tremblay and Brian Asselin on tenor, and Steffan Bello on baritone. They were backed by a rhythm section of OJO artistic director Adrian Cho on double bass, René Gely on piano and guitar, and Mark Rehder on drums.
Bello, who is currently studying music at the University of Toronto and previously played in several student big bands in Ottawa, was a last-minute replacement when Sylvie Duchesneau had a family emergency. The other four saxophonists are all highly-regarded players, with many years of experience playing in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra and with everyone from the NAC Orchestra to the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces as well as in their own projects. Tremblay also directs the student Saxophone Ensemble at Carleton University, which performs sax quartet and sax choir pieces.
They needed that experience with this material, which reenvisioned Parker's solos harmonized in five parts for a saxophone quintet. As Renaud told the audience in OJO's pre-show chat, these were tunes he'd grown up with as a musician and had been playing for years, but these orchestrations were very different. If he played his section alone, “it sounds all wrong! It works with all the harmony, but alone it doesn't.”
“I had to shed for this thing more than anything we'd done for a while,” Tremblay said. “The rhythms were the same but the harmonies were all different.”
The OJO ensemble played from the sheet music for Flory's original arrangements. These were a long-term labour of love, starting in 1956, when Flory transcribed Parker's improvised solos from records and then wrote three arrangements of those solos for five saxophones. Over the next 15 years, he created a whole book of these arrangements, and in 1972 formed Supersax with bassist Buddy Clark to play them. Supersax's debut album, Supersax Plays Bird, won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album in 1973; the group eventually released 12 albums and toured world-wide.
Supersax legendarily played in Flory's home for a year before finally making their club debut. The OJO ensemble only had two rehearsals but nevertheless smoothly executed the charts, adding their own solos within the ensemble sax playing. They also included several of their own more straightforward “head” arrangements of Parker tunes, each of which also featured one or more of the saxophonists on another instrument: Gordon on flute, Renaud on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Tremblay on piccolo and soprano sax.
Listening to their opening number, “Au Privave”, you could hear the added fullness and depth that the five-sax orchestration gave to the numbers, while preserving the zip and joyful exuberance of the original. I particularly enjoyed the rich ensemble playing in numbers such as “Blue Alice”, “Star Eyes”, and “Bloomdido”.
The contrast between the orchestrated ensemble playing and the solos from individual musicians added further interest, with the latter more pointed and pushing the tunes further out. In tunes such as “Scrapple from the Apple”, the different voices from the individual soloists also increased the impact of the tunes: interpretations ranged from Tremblay's more thoughtful and quiet solo to Gordon's more edgy and pushing version. In “Moose the Mooche”, Gordon's exploratory and swinging solo contrasted with Renaud's swooping constellations of quick notes.
In the non-Supersax pieces, I liked Tremblay's soaring piccolo lines in the band's first version of “Yardbird Suite”; the verve and style of of Renaud and Tremblay's clarinet-soprano sax duet in “Billie's Bounce”, with their plunging pitch changes and long held notes; the assured and extended solos by Bello and Asselin on “Dewey Squared”.
While the saxophones got top billing in this show, Gely's contribution was huge – and it wasn't just because there is such a thing as too much saxophone. He's best-known as a guitarist but here definitely showed off his chops on piano. In tunes like “K.C. Blues”, his piano created a full-bodied gospel vibe, with melancholy undertones, into which the sax line slipped like silk ribbon. He counterpointed the robust sax lines in “Parker's Mood” with gentle balladic and later bluesy piano lines, and set the mood with deep, punctuated chords on “Star Eyes”.
On guitar, his rendition of the standard “Laura”, which Parker recorded on his Charlie Parker with Strings album, was especially memorable. Gely opened with just the outline of the lovely melody, which Tremblay then took up on tenor, and later returned with sparse yet complete solo whose lyrical beauty was compelling in its concentrated sorrow.
Rehder, as always, provided a forceful and consistent underpinning on drums, while Cho contributed a deep and percussive solo on “Parker's Mood” which blended well with Asselin's expressive and bluesy tenor solo and Gely's inflected piano.
I don't think it should be underestimated, though, how much of a work-out this show was for the saxophonists. Essentially this was the same lineup as the sax section of a big band, but, unlike a big band, they had little respite from playing. Much of the music was played by all five and the solo sections were relatively short – and they had no trumpet or trombone sections to share the load. At one point in the middle of the second set, when Gordon transferred to flute for “Ornithology”, it sounded as though it was taking him a moment to get up to speed on that rapid-fire tune because of the different technique required for sax and flute. Once he got going, he easily navigated the fast flurries of notes required, and later smartly traded fours with Rehder, but it clearly required exertion.
The audience received a written program from OJO for this concert, which provided historical background for the music and put it better into context – very useful for a more complicated concert like this one. Cho and three of the saxophonists also hosted a pre-show chat about the music, which would have worked better if they hadn't winged it quite as much. The topic was fascinating, but the discussion became unfocused and wandered, and not everyone seemed to have had a chance to think about their responses in advance. As well, although Cho had announced the chat in a pre-show email, it appeared to have caught some of the audience by surprise. Their attention seemed divided between the discussion on stage, and settling in and getting drinks.
The ensemble closed with a reprise of “Yardbird Suite”, this time in the Supersax arrangement. It was a vigorous rendition, with the saxophonists playing extended variations on the theme together, underlaid by punctuated piano. Each saxophonist soloed in turn for a few bars, and then added individual interjections – becoming rougher and looser and faster – before reassembling for even more powerful ensemble playing that culminated in a long held note.
The audience responded with an appreciative and extended standing ovation – no surprise given how much they appeared to enjoy the music throughout, clapping for solos and warmly applauding each tune. As frequently occurs for OJO shows, this concert was sold out well in advance.
I had never heard of Supersax before this show, and it was fascinating having that music be brought back to life and hearing new interpretations of classic jazz numbers. It was also good to be reminded of the breadth of Charlie Parker's music and of pieces we don't hear as often.
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra does Ottawa a real service in presenting this music, and showing the breadth of jazz history in its imaginative choices of show themes. These days we have unprecedented access to recorded music – but it's never the same as hearing it live.
(all songs by Charlie Parker unless otherwise specified)
- Au Privave
- Blues for Alice
- Yardbird Suite
- Billie's Bounce
- Dewey Square
- Parker's Mood
- Donna Lee [attributed both to Charlie Parker and to Miles Davis]
- Moose the Mooche
- K.C. (Kansas City) Blues
- Scrapple from the Apple
- Laura [David Raksin, Johnny Mercer]
- Star Eyes
- Yardbird Suite
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