Live reviews

Kevin Sun – ‘♥︎ Bird’ Album launch at the Jazz Gallery NYC

Kevin Sun
(Jazz Gallery, NYC. <3 Bird Album launch. 19 August 2021. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Kevin Sun and band. Photo by Hayoung Lyou

2020 marked the centennial of Charlie Parker’s birth. Tributes – like nearly everything else last year – were limited, postponed or cancelled. Kevin Sun took this opportunity to dive into Parker’s catalogue of recordings and interviews and distil it into <3 Bird, an album of largely original compositions inspired by Parker’s work, forming what Sun describes as a “love letter” to the ground-breaking saxophonist’s work.

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While it is already a year on from the centennial of Parker’s birth, there is no reason to miss a good 101-year anniversary the following year; <3 Bird is being released on Parker’s birthday this August 29th. In <3 Bird, Sun sets out to re-imagine Charlie Parker in the 21st Century. However, as one of the two pillars of bebop, it is a tall order to reimagine the work of a musician who is so deeply ingrained into jazz folklore. In the same way that one’s favourite books and films are indelibly marked on your mind and revered, but you may rarely actually revisit them – so I imagine Charlie Parker’s music is for many jazz fans, particularly those who learnt to play saxophone in his wake and spent a young lifetime rehearsing his transcribed improvisations. With this familiarity in mind, I had some preconceptions about what <3 Bird might be: blistering licks, racing bass and rolling drums in a sweaty, high-energy environment. If this was the straightforward expectation, Sun and his sextet – playing a teasing soft-launch for the album at The Jazz Gallery last Thursday – presented a more nuanced interpretation.

Instead of presenting classic bebop snippets shorter than a radio edit pop song, the group opened the set into a series of meandering pieces. Greenlit launches with a solo saxophone opener from Sun, busily filling space on his own, the sound deep and rich (Sun plays a tenor instead of Parker’s lightning quick alto). As the rest of the band bustles in everyone gets time and space to improvise individually, but instead of the 8 or 16 bar hit each other musician was allowed in Parker’s inspiration piece Confirmation, here they work unhurried through different tempos and dynamics.

It is in their second piece, Dovetail, that another nuance appears. Built from the kernel of Parker’s Yardbird Suite, Sun picks up a clarinet and develops a closely worked sound mix with Adam O’Farrill on trumpet and Christian Li on piano, organic and fluttering. This interplay is perhaps a reinterpretation of the traded lines of the group, but it is a modern pensive take and a far cry from the swagger of the original, particularly featuring bowed bass from Walter Stinson and sustained horn lines from O’Farrill. In the same way that Beethoven’s music is today played – and crucially expected to be played – at wildly slower speeds than were marked on his original scores, perhaps Sun and friends are at the forefront of a review of Parker’s work at a more pedestrian, intentional gait.

The front-and-centre focus of Max Light on electric guitar is yet another nuance, updating much of the sound with a slick third melodic instrument and clean support for Li’s piano pokes.

Guitar heavily featured, giving an unexpected cool, slick sound, and a third melody line.

Talck-overseed-nete, in particular, swings with these three melody lines together, but it is on Salt Peanuts – one of the two authentically recreated tunes from the set – that drummer Matt Honor is given an opportunity to snap through at top speed. By closing the set in this mood, Sun contrasts his modern compositions and arrangements with the 80-year-old bebop classics they spawned from.

It is clear Sun has spent some serious time thinking about his approach to Parker’s work. In picking through old records, Sun notes that “There’s an absurdly broad range of musical references and quotations, literally hundreds, that he slips in; he’s like the James Joyce of modern jazz.” I guess it depends on which of the different versions of Joyce comes to mind first: the concise well-formed fragments of Dubliners, or the ground-breaking, highly systematised but sprawling Ulysses. Perhaps this is Sun’s point. Charlie Parker broke boundaries and developed a new musical grammar, steeped in the work of musicians before him but revolutionary in its technique and scope. In <3 Bird, I believe Sun is trying to acknowledge both of these Charlie Parkers through his own interpretative approach.

LINK: <3 Bird is released on Endectomorph on 29 August 2021

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