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.