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Calling all Yoko Miwa fans! DownBeat Magazine Reader’s Poll ending soon!

Calling all Yoko Miwa fans! This could be her year to finally make it into the DownBeat Magazine Reader’s Poll. Please vote for Yoko! It’s time to vote for Yoko in the 86th Annual Downbeat Readers Poll! To vote, you need to either subscribe to th…

Calling all Yoko Miwa fans! This could be her year to finally make it into the DownBeat Magazine Reader’s Poll. Please vote for Yoko! It’s time to vote for Yoko in the 86th Annual Downbeat Readers Poll! To vote, you need to either subscribe to the magazine, or to the free newsletter. You can do either…
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Krass Bros. Men’s Clothes Haberdashery

Opened in 1947 by three brothers – Ben, Jack and Harry – Krass Bros. Men’s Clothes Haberdashery was located at 937 South Street in the former Keystone Theater. Clients of the self-styled “Store of the Stars” included Palumbo’s house orchestra, Chubby Checker, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, the Dixie … Continue reading Krass Bros. Men’s Clothes Haberdashery

Opened in 1947 by three brothers – Ben, Jack and Harry – Krass Bros. Men’s Clothes Haberdashery was located at 937 South Street in the former Keystone Theater.

Clients of the self-styled “Store of the Stars” included Palumbo’s house orchestra, Chubby Checker, Johnny Mathis, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Redd Foxx and the Ink Spots.

Ben Krass’ appearances in late-night TV commercials shouting, “If you didn’t buy your clothes from Krass Brothers Men’s Store, you wuz robbed,” made him a local celebrity.

Krass Bros. opened a string of stores along South Street. They went out of business in 2002.

Debbie Burke, Jazz Author, Featured on WERS-FM Radio/Boston for “KLEZMER for the Joyful Soul”

Debbie Burke has published her sixth book, this time about klezmer. While her books are primarily about jazz – both fiction and nonfiction – this time she’s reached way back in her family tree more than a hundred years ago to muse about her paternal grandfather who came from Lvov. What music would her ancestors… Continue Reading →

Debbie Burke has published her sixth book, this time about klezmer. While her books are primarily about jazz – both fiction and nonfiction – this time she’s reached way back in her family tree more than a hundred years ago to muse about her paternal grandfather who came from Lvov. What music would her ancestors have been listening to? Were there roving musicians? And what did they play? Her conclusion: based on the location and time period, in there somewhere, there must have been klezmer. This is the story behind Burke’s newest book, “Klezmer for the Joyful Soul” (Queen Esther Publishing LLC).

“When I looked at the genealogy study that my uncle sent to me in 1998, a few stunning things came to light about the towns my forebears lived in, their ultimate extraordinary passage to America and their hardships once they got here (in my case, taking them to the Lower East Side of Manhattan),” relates Burke. “Their ebullience to be on American shores was blemished by experiencing abject poverty, alcoholism, business failure, infidelity and general existential malaise. With all that, I have to believe that some new joys occasionally infiltrated their lives in the form of music. Somewhere in the air, there was music: Yiddish music, Yiddish theater and klezmer.”

The book immediately shot up to the #1 New Release on Amazon for five weeks and occupied the #1 spot in three categories: Ethnomusicology, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Music. Starting with the background and history of the music, the book progresses with Burke’s signature interview format using carefully researched questions that elicit fascinating responses. Included in the book are many of the art form’s luminaries, including David Krakauer, Alicia Svigels, Hankus Netsky, Michael Winograd, Eleonore Weill and many others with a foreword from Pete Rushefsky from the Center for Traditional Music and Dance/Yiddish New York.

Burke was a recent guest of radio host Hal Slifer on Boston’s Chagigah Radio (WERS-FM) where she talked about her book and introduced two of her favorite klezmer songs, “Di Sapozkelekh” [“My Boots] by The Klezmatics and “A Nakht in Gan Eydn” [“A Night in the Garden of Eden”] by The David Klezmer Quintet. The show can be heard here:

For more information, visit https://bit.ly/klezmerjoyfulsoul.

With thanks to Hal Slifer, WERS-FM Radio

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke

Lyle Mays Composes a Sunrise; “Eberhard” Single Released Posthumously

An incredibly luscious, stirring song whose ambience is delicate and nuanced, all 13 minutes of the new song “Eberhard” from recently passed pianist/composer Lyle Mays are like a much-anticipated train excursion through picture-perfect landscapes. The breadth of instrumentation adds to the journey as the listener is treated lovingly with a softly intricate sax solo, flavorful… Continue Reading →

An incredibly luscious, stirring song whose ambience is delicate and nuanced, all 13 minutes of the new song “Eberhard” from recently passed pianist/composer Lyle Mays are like a much-anticipated train excursion through picture-perfect landscapes. The breadth of instrumentation adds to the journey as the listener is treated lovingly with a softly intricate sax solo, flavorful notes from the marimba and vibes, and multiple meandering textural contributions from cello, bass clarinet, flute and more.

Vocalist Aubrey Johnson is featured on the song, Lyle Mays having been her uncle and musical mentor. He wrote her part, she said, to specifically fit her voice, which it does like a hand in a glove. Mays died in 2020, and Johnson (who is in charge of his estate’s intellectual property) says that every bit of what he taught her, including the intangibles, have been woven into the fabric of the music.

Mays, who was a member of the Pat Metheny Group, wrote the song as a “humble tribute” to bassist Eberhard Weber.

When did you become interested in jazz?

Aubrey Johnson: I first became seriously interested in jazz when I heard Dianne Reeves perform live in Green Bay, WI (my hometown) while I was in high school. I had fallen in love with her singing after listening to her album “The Calling”, a tribute to Sarah Vaughan with orchestral arrangements by Billy Childs. Though I had been playing (on piano) and singing jazz for several years at that point, hearing a jazz singer of Dianne’s mastery for the first time was life-altering; it made me realize I wanted to be a jazz vocalist. 

Aubrey Johnson

What was your first public performance as a vocalist?

I performed a solo piece in front of my church congregation when I was six years old. 

Major takeaways from your formal music education?

My time studying music in school greatly expanded my idea of what is possible as a vocalist. Being around other musicians who were better than I was and who had more experience and knowledge inspired me in ways I’d never imagined.

I learned the value of collaboration in music through the jazz choirs, classical choirs and jazz combos I was a part of, and grew as a musician through the wide variety of repertoire and genres I was exposed to. Classes in composition, arranging, improvisation, theory, history, ear training as well as classical and jazz voice lessons helped make me a well-informed and versatile musician.

After receiving a solid foundational education in music as an undergraduate student at Western Michigan University, I was able to develop my artistry and personal style and sound in a deeper way in graduate school at the New England Conservatory.

How do you take care of your voice?

I warm up and work on vocal technique most days, and make sure I spend enough time singing some kind of repertoire (whether it’s my own music, music for someone else’s project, jazz standards, pop, or Brazilian music) to keep my voice in shape. I also exercise regularly, generally eat well, and *try* to get enough sleep in order to care for my body, which of course affects my voice. I also study intermittently with an excellent opera teacher in New York City, Tami Petty, and with an amazing jazz singer who teaches at the University of North Texas (and who also sings on “Eberhard”), Rosana Eckert. 

What do you like about the music of Jobim and other Brazilian artists? 

I love the grooves, harmony, and melodic construction of Brazilian music, as well as the joyfulness and soulfulness of the compositions and the artists who perform them. I also love the unique sounds of the Portuguese language and how those sounds fit together with and accentuate the rhythms inherent in the music. I enjoy the frequent dichotomy between the lyrical meaning of a song and the grooves and harmonies. Often a song will sound very happy and fun but the lyrics will be incredibly sad. I love the idea that music can be joyful while also expressing darker emotions. It makes sense to me that the two can exist together, though I don’t hear it very often in other kinds of music. 

What was it like working with Lyle Mays? How did you come to be involved in “Eberhard”?

My experiences performing and recording with Lyle will always be among the highlights of my career, and of my life. Lyle was an incredibly generous and incredibly exacting bandleader. His standards were other-worldly, but his music is so good and he knew so clearly what he wanted that he inspired everyone to be their best and to enjoy doing it. The way he worked with me showed me that I was capable of much more than I had imagined. 

I became involved in “Eberhard” in 2009 when Lyle wrote the piece for the Zeltsman Marimba Festival. The parts that I sang on that concert, and later on the recording, were written specifically for my voice. Lyle was excellent at writing for individual instruments and for individual players/singers. He took the time to ask me in-depth questions about my singing and listened to a wide variety of my recordings, so that what he wrote for me both showcased my capabilities and challenged me but also felt good and easy in my voice. 

What is involved in handling your mentor’s musical estate?

Managing Lyle’s musical estate is a tremendous honor that I take very seriously. All of my attention is on the release of “Eberhard” at the moment–I have self-released the album, which is quite a time-consuming process. Moving forward I’ll be working on other ways to further Lyle’s legacy and to keep his memory alive. 

How would you characterize his creative process?

Lyle spoke often of the composition process having two distinct phases. The first phase consisted of a lot of improvisation and creative exploration. Then, once he was happy with a particular melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic cell or motif, he would move to the second phase which he liked to call “mining your material”–taking the idea or ideas and studying them and experimenting with them like a scientist. He imparted to me how important it is to develop new material based on the original material, as opposed to trying to generate a bunch of different ideas. 

How would you describe your creative process?

My own process is very much the same (albeit considerably less advanced), due to my time studying with him. I usually sit down at the piano and play and sing until I find some good ideas that feel interesting and inspired, and then move to work on exploration and exploitation of the material. Some parts of the process occur very quickly and some are painstaking, but together I think the resulting music feels organic and interesting, as well as logical and connected. 

Explain “singing wordlessly” – are you talking about scatting or something else?

Singing wordlessly could include scatting, but generally it’s singing a melody (or counterline, soli, background part, etc.) without lyrics that’s already been composed. Scatting typically refers to improvisation.

How did you keep musically busy during lockdown?

My circumstances as a teacher during the pandemic necessitated learning new technology; I was leading a few different vocal jazz ensembles online and I realized quickly that the best way to work with those ensembles online was through remote video and audio recordings. I would record demos of myself singing all of the vocal parts of the arrangements we worked on, they’d record, and then I would mix and edit their audio in Logic and assemble and sync the videos in Adobe Premiere Pro (both programs I knew little about prior to the pandemic). I also performed solo concerts for several concert series and organizations from home, sang at a few outdoor live-streamed concerts in the warmer months, and collaborated virtually with several different artists/ensembles. 

What venues are opening back up and what is gigging like now?

Many of the venues in New York City are open again, though there are several important ones that are either permanently closed or haven’t yet reopened. I just found out the Village Vanguard is reopening in September, which is very exciting. Gigging feels fairly normal at this point–people generally don’t wear masks on stage or inside the venues, which have become quite packed again (because most places have a vaccine requirement to enter), though it’s becoming clear that we might be shifting back to more precautions in the coming months. 

Other comments?

Lyle gave every last bit of the time and energy he had during the last months of his life to the completion of Eberhard. I’m extremely excited for the world to hear the music and to enjoy this incredible final gift that he left for us. Thank you for taking the time to listen! 

For more information visit www.lylemays.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mr. Mays’ estate. Top photo (c) Beth Herzhaft.

© 2021 Debbie Burke

Debbie Burke author/Amazon

2021 DownBeat Readers’ Poll

The first DownBeat readers’ poll was published in 1952. Past winners with Philadelphia roots include John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Jaco Pastorius, Sun Ra, Bessie Smith and Jimmy Smith.

Voting is open to subscribers of DownBeat maga…

The first DownBeat readers’ poll was published in 1952. Past winners with Philadelphia roots include John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Jaco Pastorius, Sun Ra, Bessie Smith and Jimmy Smith.

Voting is open to subscribers of DownBeat magazine or their free eNewsletter. The poll closes on September 10. To vote, go here

The Jazz Gallery Presents: Renée Neufville

This Saturday, August 21, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome vocalist Renée Neufville back to our stage. A true lodestar of neo-soul, Neufville’s music effortlessly floats along the jazz-R&B axis. And as founding member of Roy Hargrove’s RHFactor, Neufville has stewarded his legacy, including in this performance of her “Song for Roy,” performed with […]

Renee Neufville

Photo courtesy of the artist.

This Saturday, August 21, The Jazz Gallery is pleased to welcome vocalist Renée Neufville back to our stage. A true lodestar of neo-soul, Neufville’s music effortlessly floats along the jazz-R&B axis. And as founding member of Roy Hargrove’s RHFactor, Neufville has stewarded his legacy, including in this performance of her “Song for Roy,” performed with The Jazz Gallery All-Starts at this summer’s Newport Jazz Festival.

For this special performance at the Gallery, Neufville will be joined by a top-flight band, including saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, pianist Keith Brown, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Willie Jones III.

Renée Neufville and Friends play The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, August 21, 2021. The group features Ms. Neufville on vocals, Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Keith Brown on piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

Sam Thornton’s Intergalactic Brasstronauts Leave Scorched Earth in “Music for the People”

Imagine a vibe that evokes dubstep, reggae, Dixieland and big band and you have a sliver of a glimpse of the Intergalactic Brasstronauts. Leader and sax player Sam Thornton and his band have a new CD called “Music for the People” which is best described as a huge, screaming heap of fun. An incredible 16… Continue Reading →

Imagine a vibe that evokes dubstep, reggae, Dixieland and big band and you have a sliver of a glimpse of the Intergalactic Brasstronauts. Leader and sax player Sam Thornton and his band have a new CD called “Music for the People” which is best described as a huge, screaming heap of fun. An incredible 16 tracks that leaves the listener breathless, heart pumping, stomping away. Inventive instrumentation, counterpoint that’s off the chain and sizzling hooks crash together to make this a memorable offering. Catchy as all get-out.

Personnel:

Sam Thornton – voice, tenor & baritone saxophones, melodica, piano, organ, percussion, lead guitar
Tasha B – voice
B Dubs – voice
Andy Morgan – rhythm guitar
John Settle – drums
Joe Love – drums
James Lancaster – sousaphone
Stuart Garside – trombone
Will Osborne – trombone
Chris Williamson – trumpet
Dan Webster – trumpet
Tom Ashe – trumpet
Stu MacDonald – soprano saxophone & contrabass clarinet

Why and when did you form this band?

This band was conceived just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and the consequent long periods in lockdown provided the opportunity for me to write the brass arrangements and start producing the album. I was inspired by the New Orleans-style street bands, which have become very popular in the UK over the last decade. I love the energy generated by players moving around the audience rather than being confined to a stage. I love the sound of two screaming trumpets sitting on top of a thick wall of brass. But, certainly with the UK bands, I found the repertoire to be mostly limited to cover versions of classic pop and soul hits, with a bit of NOLA on the side. I decided to write some original music for the street band lineup, but to change it up a bit, with some unusual instruments and electronic effects.

How did you come to your own sound and which elements of Nawlins did you want to riff off of?

We have adopted the mobile, “pop-up-party” feel of the New Orleans street bands, but there are many other elements that have shaped our sound. I grew up playing in big bands and jazz orchestras, and have been heavily influenced by composers and arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, Charles Mingus and Thad Jones. Myself and the guitarist from the band, Andy Morgan, have played in ska and reggae bands for the last 15 years too, so there is a heavy off-beat emphasis in our music and long, dubby passages, where we strip everything right back to drums, guitar and bass, awash with tape delay and spring reverb effects. The bass lines are doubled-up on sousaphone and contrabass clarinet, giving extra emphasis to the bottom end. We also have a vocalist, B Dubs, who specializes in the Jamaican tradition of “toasting” (an early form of rap, long before that term was coined) over instrumental sections.

Why did you decide to incorporate all kinds of instruments in your music?

I originally toyed with the idea of the sousaphone parts being doubled on bass saxophone but our reeds player, Stuart MacDonald (also of the Hallé Orchestra), pointed out that the contrabass clarinet is capable of playing an extra fifth below the lowest saxophone note and he had one, gathering dust, in his cupboard. He brought it along to one of the recording dates and it was settled. The sousa/contrabass clarinet combo was THE sound I had been striving for… incredibly low and subby, but still organic and mellow. The melodica is another feature of our music which you wouldn’t normally see in a brass band. A reed instrument, similar in sound to a harmonica or an accordion, it cuts through the dense brass and is a familiar sound to fans of dub and reggae, thanks to its main protagonist Augustus Pablo.

What inspired “Music for the People”?

This is a concept album where we (the band) are members of an alien race, having recently arrived on a deserted Planet Earth. The discovery of a human bunker, full of musical instruments and tape recordings, has enabled us to start piecing together a picture of what life was like for our predecessors on this planet.

Back in the real world we have a tendency to focus on what divides us and, in recent years, social media seems to be amplifying our differences. I feel it is important that art and music exists which encourages us to take a step back and examine ourselves from the perspective of an outsider looking in, so we can ask the important questions like “are we really that different?”, “should we be fighting?” and “are we being ridiculous?”

What was the most fun part and the most challenging part of producing this album?

The whole process has been incredibly fun. The main brass recording session, earlier this year, was the first time many of us had been in the same room as other musicians for months. That alone was exciting, but also challenging in some respects. I, for one, had been putting all my time and energy through the lockdown period into writing and arranging, and had neglected my saxophone practice. I didn’t think it would matter, as I was only meant to be directing the band on the first few sessions; however, our tenor saxophone player had to quarantine which meant a dusting-off of the horn, and a baptism of fire for me. 

We had financial support from an Arts Council of England National Lottery Project Grant, which covered the costs of recording and producing the album. It was really nice to be able to pay everyone involved, fairly and handsomely, at a time when work has been scarce. The challenging part for me is rarely the music-making, but rather how to promote the finished album. As a brand new band we haven’t toured yet or built up a pot of money, so we are a self-contained unit at this stage, taking care of bookings and promotional work ourselves.

Your favorite track?

My favourite track… actually two tracks that segue into each other… is “Dubfart/Al Baba,” as it features the very talented B Dubs on vocals and has just the right balance of sparse, dubby reggae, and bold, brassy ska, with a good helping of big-band-jazz-style sectional writing. 

How did you meet your bandmates and what do they bring to the table? 

I’ve known trombonist, Stuart Garside, and reedsman, Stuart MacDonald, for many years through playing in various big bands and jazz ensembles with them, including Doncaster Jazz Orchestra and The Al Wood Big Band. Those guys play regularly with New York Brass Band, who have a slightly misleading band name (they have no connection to the Big Apple).

I guested with the brass band a few times at Glastonbury Festival in the UK a few months before the pandemic struck, and I was gobsmacked by their energy, their stamina and the creativity and quality of their soloists. When they play at Glastonbury, they play around 25 sets over the course of the weekend. At Rio Carnival they play relentlessly in “bloco” street parties for 4 or 5 hours at a time without a break. Those of you who have ever picked up a brass instrument will understand how physically tiring this would be yet, when watching the players in NYBB and Intergalactic Brasstronauts, they never look tired and always give 100%. This stamina has allowed me to write continuous passages of music for the band and our album is 60 minutes in length with no breaks in between songs, much like a classical suite or a DJ mix. Our live shows are similar. 

How is the scene where you are, especially getting gigs right now?

Things are starting to pick up in the UK after the restrictions have been lifted. There were periods of full lockdown where live music ground to a halt, along with everything else. There have also been small milestones along the way, such as some venues opening outside seating areas, suitable for live music, and a gradual relaxation of the rules around audience members being allowed to dance.

At the time of writing, all restrictions around social-distancing have been removed, and music venues are allowed to open at full capacity again. However, many large festivals are unable to operate, due to insurance issues. There is still a way to go and, if the last 18 months has taught us anything, it is how quickly things can change. It is however great to be playing live music again and, so far, audiences seem to enjoying it too!

Upcoming gigs and projects you are working on?

At the moment, we don’t have many events set in stone, due to the uncertainty of what’s around the corner. We’re taking baby steps first, with a gig in our local city of Leeds on 29 October 2021. We are planning a UK tour for April 2022 and a European tour for April 2023, including a confirmed appearance at Freedom Sounds festival in Germany. We’d love to travel further afield eventually but, as a new band, we’re enjoying taking it one step at a time and seeing how it all unfolds. 

Other comments?

‘Music For The People’ is available directly from our artist bandcamp page, https://intergalacticbrasstronauts.bandcamp.com

For more information visit www.tinyurl.com/brasstronauts, www.facebook.com/intergalacticbrasstronauts,  www.twitter.com/igbrasstronauts, www.instagram.com/intergalacticbrasstronauts.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

© 2021 Debbie Burke

#1 New Release on Amazon!

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Saxophonist Kevin Sun deftly navigates jazz’s knife edge of tradition and novelty. While Sun’s compositions embrace rhythmic and harmonic abstractions, his playing is rooted in the deep study of saxophone elders from Lester Young to Stan Getz to Mark Turner. Sun’s newest project straddles that divide between new and old, a Charlie Parker exploration called <3 […]

Kevin Sun

Photo by Diane Zhou, courtesy of the artist.

Saxophonist Kevin Sun deftly navigates jazz’s knife edge of tradition and novelty. While Sun’s compositions embrace rhythmic and harmonic abstractions, his playing is rooted in the deep study of saxophone elders from Lester Young to Stan Getz to Mark Turner. Sun’s newest project straddles that divide between new and old, a Charlie Parker exploration called <3 Bird (Endectomorph), released just in time for Parker’s 101st birthday. In “Greenlit,” below, Parker’s tune “Confirmation” is shot through a rhythmic prism, exaggerating the tune’s already-slippery twists and turns.

This Thursday, August 19, Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery stage to celebrate the release of <3 Bird, alongside the album’s full-band lineup: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, guitarist Max Light, pianist Christian Li, bassist Walter Stinson, and drummer Matt Honor. We caught up with Sun to discuss the project’s origins and his experience listening to Parker’s complete recorded output.

The Jazz Gallery: I was going back and reading your Parker blog posts from the past year-plus. When you started writing these in late spring 2020, was this something you had always planned on doing for Parker’s centennial, or was this something you went toward in that early pandemic headspace?

Kevin Sun: It wasn’t really planned. I would say more that I gravitated toward it and found myself sucked in when I was really isolated for a while, like everyone else. In the back of my mind I knew that Charlie Parker was very important to me and I wanted to do something for the centennial, but, I didn’t have anything really in mind.

It just slowly grew, and it kept growing; the more I listened, I had more and more questions come up. Some of them I haven’t really found a satisfactory answer, and I’m not sure there is one. I have like three or four legal pads just filled with tons of notes: questions, listening notes, reading notes. It was something that gave me life and pretty much kept me going.

TJG: Since you already knew Parker’s playing well, what were some of the things that appeared differently in your listening this time? What were those questions?

KS: The biggest thing that occurred to me was to get my hands on everything that is known to exist, and there’s this amazing resource—a website made by Peter Losin that has a database and a search function, so that was super helpful for me in terms of organizing the discography as I was acquiring recordings. I tried to listen to everything, and it comes out to about 72 hours. Based on what I have, I’m missing a handful of dates—like three or four—but I pretty much have everything. From there, I extracted all of the solos; that’s close to about 24 hours, which is more manageable. If you want to listen to 3 hours a day, you can do it in a little over a week.

The first thing that struck me is consistency. Pretty much in every recording, except for one or two, he’s just him. It’s all there—the time, the feel, the phrasing. It’s so clear and distinct, and it never feels like he’s overly accommodating. He always presents himself and makes his own voice fit in the context of how the music’s happening. That just blew me away, because it’s pretty much his whole recorded career. It’s kind of shocking because there are so few musicians who are on that level of consistency. Other people I’ve studied a lot—like Joe Henderson or Coltrane—have good nights and less good nights. Parker just never had an off night from what I can tell recording-wise, and that’s pretty freakish.

TJG: That consistency brings up interesting questions about how Parker’s improviser-brain worked, especially compared to people like Henderson and Coltrane.

KS: I thought about that a lot. One of the questions that brought up for me is, what did he practice? How did he practice to reach such a level of consistency that was apparent from a young age? Pretty much from his early 20s, we have recordings where he’s playing with bands and playing bebop.

It seems to me that he must have been very clear to himself, very decisive in terms of choosing what melodic material he thought was the strongest, and wanting to use that again and again and again. That also means that he had to decide not to do all of this other stuff that he was aware of. Other people might play that way, but he decided not to play it because it doesn’t speak to him in a profound way like the material he devised.

That second element seems really hard to do for me. It’s not just discipline, but sacrifice, because you’re choosing to cut out other things that might be fun to flirt with. I feel like for young musicians today—myself included—a big part of the learning process is trying a lot of things, and some things stick and other things don’t. Bird somehow just accelerated the process, or he just knew within himself from an early age what he wanted to say.

TJG: How did this thinking about Parker’s consistency impact the way you’ve practiced recently, and how you devised the music for the album?

KS: Well, my understanding about the consistency came way after I wrote the music for the record! The writing was pretty whimsical. I would just sketch out ideas and things that occurred to me, whatever came to mind on a given day. During that three-month period where I was pretty much alone and wasn’t seeing anyone, I just sketched ideas with the thought that I would be able to try this music out with my friends at some point, whether that was a year or something. A lot of them were just fun mental exercises, trying to take my attention away from the world for just a little bit.

One thing I’ll say is that I didn’t intend to really record this music as an album—I just wrote music as it came. Like the “Dewey Square” thing (“Du Yi’s Choir”), I actually started thinking about that a little bit before the lockdown happened. I knew I was into that intro from the original recording, which has this weird cross-rhythm happening. I messed around with speeding it up and slowing down. There’s the piano versus the bass and drums—what if one starts way faster and slows down, and the other starts slower and speeds up until they cross? It’s kind of nerdy stuff that could be interesting, but I don’t know if it’ll actually sound good until we play it.

TJG: That’s making me think of the Conlon Nancarrow player piano pieces—there’s one in particular that has two voices speeding up and slowing down in that way. And that’s making me think about how Nancarrow and Parker aren’t that far apart in age, and what would have happened if they had met in a different timeline.

KS: Interesting—I didn’t know that. I always thought Nancarrow was much older.

Thinking about collaboration more generally, it’s funny that a lot of the ideas for pieces on the album came from song introductions, and I get the feeling that Bird didn’t come up with them. The thing from “Dewey Square” seems more like something Max Roach would have come up with. If you listen to the various takes, the first take doesn’t have an intro—they just hit the melody. In the second, there’s an intro, but Max Roach is just playing time under the piano figure,  then it’s the third take where Roach comes up with that really interesting cross-rhythm thing that makes it more mysterious.

I think it says something about Charlie Parker as a composer and bandleader: He has a very strong sense of the material he’s going to present in terms of the core of the melody, but leaves space for the people he’s collaborating with to bring something new. In “Scrapple from the Apple,” Roy Haynes comes up with something brilliant for the intro, a counterpoint to that upbeat figure.

TJG: To me, this relates to the kind of restraint you were talking about earlier—Parker knowing what his music was and what it wasn’t, and that quality allowing for other kinds of music to fit in the space around Parker’s lines, whether that’s the rhythmic games of Roach or Haynes, or the big orchestral sound in Bird with Strings.

KS: One thing I feel is that the negative space for collaborators to jump into is only as effective as how clear we define the positive spaces. In Parker’s case, the aesthetic of his lines is so clear. That makes it so that other people are freer to be themselves and contribute their personal feeling. I think that’s the clearest in the way drummers play with him, like Roach or Haynes or Art Blakey. On the best live recordings, there can be so much counterpoint happening, way more than I think typically happens in the hard bop bands of the ‘50s. Parker’s drawing the line so clearly in the sand, so you know where you can to complement it. Maybe a better word to use is “conviction,” and how that conviction is expressed through musical choices.

TJG: One element of your Parker project more generally was listening through all the solos to find every musical reference he played. Since I’m really interested in what musical reference can do, I’d love to hear you speak about what you think the purpose of those references are in Parker’s playing, especially juxtaposed with the consistent melodic style we’ve talked about.

KS: I bumped into Miles Okazaki randomly a few weeks ago in the Village. We were talking about the references, and Miles brought up a really good point. One of the main purposes is to play something that the audience members can connect to and recognize, so they feel a part of the musical experience. That definitely sounds like the case on certain recordings where you hear people respond loudly when Parker plays something really obvious. He knows how to connect to people dancing in a ballroom, and playing something people will recognize does that.

TJG: Basically what a DJ does to keep the vibe going.

KS: But for me, there’s another thing, too. I was using this website Chasin’ the Bird, which is a crowd-sourced catalog of quotes. They had over 150, and I added a few others that I recognized. My theory right now is that based on the breadth, volume, and frequency of quotes you can recognize and identify on his recordings, he had a remarkable gift for recalling melody and then playing it back. I don’t think he had perfect pitch as far as I know, but he just had great ears for that kind of thing. I think the implication is that if you don’t have to think as hard about melody, or if melody is more accessible to you, maybe you can focus more of your conscious, creative exertion on other aspects, like rhythm and phrasing. For me, it makes sense because you’re not thinking so much about what the melodic part is, but how to phrase the melody, how it’s going to come out in the moment. If that’s the case, I think it explains a lot about his style and why it’s so powerful.

TJG: This is getting back to that question of an improviser’s cognitive activity. When there are so many notes flying by, it’s clear that the player isn’t thinking about every single note, it’s these larger chunks that coalesce as an object. It’s something I teach a lot in aural skills classes—being able to recognize larger patterns, so when you’re soloing, it’s thinking about beginnings and endings of chunks and where they’re placed in time. And for Parker, those chunks are the melodic phrases that we associate with him that he practiced so much, and the musical quotations.

KS: Yeah—something about his language can be very discretized, like in terms of his sequences of pitches. But what’s challenging and interesting is how from solo to solo, there are big changes in how they’re phrased, and where the emphasis is, and the pauses and which notes are held out. It’s a higher-level organization on top of the discretized pitch material.

TJG: In some way, I feel it’s analogous to a total serialist approach to composition, where there are different levels of organization of different musical parameters and the ways that they conflict and coincide create musical shapes. Parker’s organizing different parameters with a different method, but that kind of layered system feels very modernist.

So one last question: when you actually got this material in front of the band, how did the performances line up with what you were imagining back in spring 2020?

KS: I mean, I was pretty blown away. They’re all amazing musicians. For the purposes of the album, I split up the group, featuring certain people on certain tracks. But most of them have played or read through most of the music at some point. The Gallery show will be interesting because we’re not going to play the album as written, but do sextet arrangements for everything. I think that’s a bit more suitable for a live setting—both more organized and more chaotic, I think.

When we first started playing, it felt like some of the music was really hard. That usually happens, and it takes a while to acclimate to new music like this. But by the end of the recording session, I was thinking, “Man, I’m sure Charlie Parker would sound amazing if he played on any of these songs.” Even with all the odd meter things, I don’t think he’d have any issue hearing it, knowing what we know about how flexible and solid his sense of time was, and how flexible he can be with phrasing. I don’t know, I would hope that he would be into it in some way.

Saxophonist Kevin Sun celebrates the release of <3 Bird (Endectomorph) at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, August 19, 2021. Mr. Sun will be joined by Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Max Light on guitar, Christian Li on piano, Walter Stinson on bass, and Matt Honor on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. E.D.T. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $25 reserved table seating ($10 for members), $20 livestream access (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.

 

Catching Up With Yoko Miwa On Instagram

Are you following Yoko Miwa on Instagram at @yokomiwajazz? It’s a great way to keep up with Yoko’s day to day life, gigs, travels, menu ideas, and more. Here are a few recently highlights:

Are you following Yoko Miwa on Instagram at @yokomiwajazz? It’s a great way to keep up with Yoko’s day to day life, gigs, travels, menu ideas, and more. Here are a few recently highlights: