Hans Koller – Word from Bird
(AMM. Album review by Charles Rees)
As the title of pianist/arranger Hans Koller‘s latest album indicates, Word from Bird has a Charlie (‘Bird’) Parker theme to all of its tracks. The German-born, London-based pianist assembled a thirteen-piece jazz orchestra comprised of like-minded players (full list below) for this project. Many of them are musicians with whom he works in his capacity as Head of Jazz at Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
The album opens with an original composition entitled “Charles the First”, which – fittingly for an album celebrating the music of Charlie Parker – features John O’Gallagher on alto sax. The American-born saxophonist’s solos on the aforementioned track as well as on “Milestones” are real highlights of the album. On “Milestones” (a composition by pianist John Lewis, not to be confused with the Miles Davis tune), Koller opts for more of a walking ballad feel. The slower tempo doesn’t just feel very natural for the tune, it also affords listeners the chance to appreciate the detail of the dense harmonies of the head arrangement as they evolve, something which would not be possible at the original tempo.
Each of Koller’s seven arrangements is masterfully crafted; they pay homage to the source material while expressing his own artistic personality. Although there are moments across the performance where the intricate writing sounds like it could have benefited from more rehearsal time with this ensemble, such moments ultimately detract little from the overall album: the improvised moments are just as important and they come across very strongly indeed on this album. Koller provides all of his soloists with ample space to build out their improvisations, expertly balancing them alongside his arranged material. From Duke Ellington to Jim McNeely and Maria Schneider, this is the mark of what a great jazz arranger does.
Most of the tracks branch far beyond the bebop stylings of Charlie Parker’s own recordings. Koller’s arrangement of “Parker’s Mood” is a good example: it maintains much of the original version’s entrenched bluesy characteristics while seemingly alluding to Gil Evans’ St. Louis Blues arrangement on New Bottle Old Wine (1959); which itself featured the blues vocabulary of Bird aficionado Cannonball Adderley. Koller’s arrangement of the Ornette Coleman tune “Word from Bird” steps in a different direction, featuring a totally free middle section with simultaneous improvisation by Percy Pursglove (trumpet) and Josephine Davies (tenor). However consciously Koller applied these influences, they are intrinsically linked to Parker’s legacy and thus make for a deeper and more multifaceted tribute to the bebop pioneer.
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Word from Bird is obviously not the first and surely will not be the last recording to celebrate Charlie Parker’s immense influence. But what separates it from so many of its counterparts is not only how Koller incorporates the individual voices of his players into his writing, but in particular how openly he embraces all the developments in jazz since bebop. Perhaps that is the most fitting way of paying homage to Bird: to acknowledge and celebrate his place as the father of all contemporary jazz.
Full list of players…
John O’Gallagher, Zhenya Strigalev, Xhosa Cole, Josephine Davies (saxes)
Percy Pursglove, Byron Wallen, Robbie Robson (trumpets)
Matt Seddon, Malcolm Earle-Smith (trombones), Richard Henry (bass trombone)
Calum Gourlay (bass)
Tim Giles (drums)
Hans Koller (piano)