Album reviews

WDR Big Band ft Luigi Grasso and Johan Hörlén – ‘Birth Of A Bird’

WDR Big Band ft Luigi Grasso and Johan Hörlén – Birth Of A Bird

(Jazzline D77114 – album review by Mark McKergow)

The WDR Big Band celebrate Charlie Parker’s centenary in suitably gyratory style with a feast of alto sax gymnastics and top-class new arrangements of some true Bird classics.

Lao Tzu wrote that “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long”. LJN readers probably won’t need reminding that the life of alto sax master Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker followed that trajectory in an even more accelerated fashion. Born on 29 August 1920 in Kansas City, largely self-taught, years spent ‘woodshedding’ in private, stymied from recording by a Musicians Union dispute, Parker appeared to the world fully formed in his Savoy recording session of 1945 (along with friend Dizzy Gillespie and a very young Miles Davis). His style of playing with advanced harmonics and skewed rhythms, dubbed bebop, set the tone for jazz for decades to come and is still revered.

Parker’s life was meteoric, mercurial and short. Every solo seemed to reach new heights and explore fresh byways. He spent years in the grip of heroin, in and out of hospital and struggles with mental health.  When he died watching TV on the New York sofa of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica ‘Nica’ de Koenigswarter in early 1955, the doctor estimated the 34-year old’s body to be that of a 50-60 year old.

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The Cologne-based WDR Big Band sought to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Parker’s birth, by commissioning long-time arranger Michael Abene, and recorded this set in 2020. Plans for a concert performance fell foul of the pandemic – the group finally presented a distanced concert in 2021 and the studio recording has now been released at last. They didn’t have far to look for one featured alto soloist – the WDR’s own lead Johan Hörlén. But Abene’s plan was for two lead alto saxophones. The German cultural sector being what it is, they only had to go one cardinal point clockwise to find the NDR Big Band’s Luigi Grasso.

The CD opens with Chi Chi, a relatively late Parker 12-bar blues head. It is immediately clear that the twin alto line-up is going to be exciting and authentic – the opening dual solos display not only Parker’s virtuosity (he could play very fast and still have acres of space) but also his exuberant intonation. Parker tended to play a little sharp sometimes which added a distinctive quality, and both soloists know how to deploy that to good effect. The head is played by the full band in a crunchy clashing harmony which immediately ups the stakes – this isn’t a classic big band chart but a proper musical exploration. Grasso solos first, then the band comes back and the tune grinds to a halt – only for Hörlén to pick it up and kick on. Conductor Jörg Achim Keller must have had a fine time. Seven minutes of beautiful and bouncing bop.

Parker himself wasn’t much of a big-band enthusiast – when he did record in bigger groups it was usually with strings. Michael Abene therefore has some work to do in thinking up arrangements for the project, and he succeeds well. Ah-Leu-Cha is paired with Scrapple From The Apple in another uptempo romp, with trumpet player Ruud Breuls getting a look in alongside the altos. Ornithology has a drum-led opening (neat work from Hans Dekker) the orchestra foreshadowing the theme before Paul Heller on tenor sax joins the soloists with a short chorale leading into a welcome piano round from Billy Test.

Each soloist is given their own ballad feature. Luigi Grasso gets Embraceable You, opening with a beautiful totally solo improvisation for a full two minutes before the band enters and he (unlike Parker) plays the melody. Johan Hörlén features on The Gyspy, recorded by Parker in 1946 at the famous Lover Man session just before he was sent to the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.  The band arrangement is particularly attractive – a great deal of variety and an excellent foil for Hörlén’s solo. Karolina Strassmeyer lifts her alto sax on Yardbird Suite, while baritone saxophonist Jens Neufang has to wait till the closing Segment for his spot.

This is a beautiful CD – classic tunes, fascinating reworkings, blazing altos and top musicianship. It could be the ideal Christmas present for any ‘filthy boppers’ in your life. And while you enjoy it, remember that all these fine musicians have spent years listening to Parker. He hadn’t.

A final thought about the world of the radio big band. Germany has at least four of these (WDR, NDR, HR (Frankfurt), SWR (Stuttgart). These offer salaried posts to musicians, develop new and sometimes challenging projects, and serve their regions and beyond. In the UK the only group doing anything similar is the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra under the indefatigable Tommy Smith (who also leads a youth jazz orchestra). BBC Big Band where are you? Arts funding in the UK seems to be, as Dr Johnson might say, not done well, and surprising to find it done at all! 

Buy Birth Of A Bird from Presto Music

Categories: Album reviews

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