Written by Mark Schramm from WBGO-FM
To inaugurate the 2011-12 jazz season at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., director of jazz Kevin Struthers wanted something special and different. So he called on go-to alto sax man Steve Wilson, and Wilson delivered an all-star jazz group — Bruce Barth (piano), Michael Bowie (bass), Lewis Nash (drums) — plus three violins (Diane Monroe, Matvei Sigalov and Naira Underwood), a violist (Dawn Michelle Johnson), a cellist (Troy Kenneth Stuart) and high expectations.
They are here to play music from the legendary Charlie Parker With Strings sessions, recordings that the bebop master released in 1950. For Wilson’s 50th birthday a year ago, David O’Rourke adapted and reconstructed the original parts for a celebration at Jazz Standard in New York — and now, for a short, spirited run at the KC Jazz Club.
In the original sessions, the strings play a mostly backing role to Charlie Parker. However, Wilson features his string section front and center. One highlight is violinist Diane Monroe and “Moon Mist,” written by Mercer Ellington, but not included on the original LP. Another is “Ezz-thetic” by composer and music theorist George Russell for Ezzard Charles, the African-American boxing champion from the late 1940s into the ’50s. When Charles beat Jersey Joe Walcott and then Joe Louis, he was the world heavyweight champ. Ezzard Charles was a noted bass player, as well; he jammed at Birdland back in the day.
Wilson says the modern-sounding “Ezz-thetic” is “really a peek into what might have been the next musical step in Charlie Parker’s development.” Parker died in 1955, leaving the future an open question.
Wilson has long been one of the busiest players in jazz. And yet he says that playing with a string section is one of the most exhilarating experiences he’s had on the bandstand. For him, the strings have an emotional sound that is close to the human voice, and he shapes his solos to fit that sound. Wilson’s personal favorite of the Charlie Parker With Strings songbook is our closing song, “Repetition,” by Neil Hefti.
Recording and Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos with Greg Hartman and Christian Amonson of Big Mo Recording. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s studio engineer is Ginger Bruner at KUNV Las Vegas.