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Strings, quartet combine for a stirring 'Bird Lives' tribute

March 01, 2004|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Charlie Parker was a magnificent jazz artist, one of the music's three or four most vital and influential players. But one rarely thinks of him as a maker of hits, as the sort of musician whose work can spark an instant audience response at the mere mention of the name of a song.

Nonetheless, that's what happened at Pasadena's McKinley Auditorium on Saturday night during the concert, "Bird Lives," the final event in the Pasadena Jazz Institute's celebration of Black History Month.

With alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan playing the Parker role, the program opened with a survey of such small ensemble classics as "Scrapple From the Apple," "Confirmation" and "My Little Suede Shoes." And when Morgan announced that one of the tunes would be Parker's "Yardbird Suite," there was an instant murmur of oohs and aahs from the packed house.

The balance of the concert -- which featured a full-scale recreation of tunes from the "Charlie Parker With Strings" albums of the early '50s, performed with a 12-piece string section from the Pasadena Symphony, with oboe soloing by Phil Feather -- drew similar response. Not bad for bebop from half a century ago.

In part, the enthusiasm traced to the rarity of an opportunity to hear the orchestrations (transcribed by conductor Jim McMillen) in live performance. Arguably Parker's most commercially oriented performances, they provided string ensemble settings to showcase his warm saxophone sound and his soaring improvisational flights.

Accompanied by a sterling rhythm section of pianist John Campbell, bassist Tony Dumas and drummer Ralph Penland, Morgan played the Parker solo segments with energy and authenticity. Occasionally referring to passages from the recorded Parker improvisations, he more often simply roamed freely through the complex harmonic and rhythmic mazes of the bebop style.

His playing brought a collection of splendid music to life -- "Dancing in the Dark," "Out of Nowhere" and, especially, "Just Friends." In the process, Morgan revealed the real fascination of the Parker string settings: that, despite the mid-20th century desire of jazz players to find validation via performances with string ensembles, great jazz improvising provides its own incomparable affirmation.

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