The Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra’s performance of “The Harlem Nutcracker” has become something of a holiday tradition, but this year the celebration was shared with an occasion at least as significant for the jazz community: the 100th Charlie Parker’s birthday.
Admittedly, the party came about a year and a half behind schedule, for reasons that hardly need to be mentioned at this point. But even belatedly, the iconic saxophonist’s centenary inspired a festive musical evening on Saturday night at the Annenberg Center.
The Jazz Orchestra, conducted by trumpeter Terell Stafford and now under the tutelage of the Philly Pops, first performed “The Harlem Nutcracker” in December 2014, less than a year after the ensemble was formed. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn originally reinvented Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” as jazz in 1960, giving a big band touch to the Christmas classic.
The first half of Saturday’s concert was devoted to the nine-movement suite, performed with enthusiasm by the group of 18 musicians. Propelled by the rock-solid swing of bassist Lee Smith and drummer Steve Fidyk, the track progressed at a sustained pace punctuated by laconic solos. A few of the musicians had brief moments in the limelight, with Chris Farr’s raspy tenor and Chris Oatts’ twisty viola as special springs, although the emphasis was on the Elthonian spiritual arrangements. Dancing as nimbly as a ballerina in the more traditional setting of music, clarinetist Sean Bailey sang tunes with baritone saxophonist Mark Allen, while trombonists Chris Mele and Jarred Antonacci moan and roar.
While the first half was as warm and heartwarming as a glass of eggnog in front of the fireplace, it was after the intermission that the music really took off. Parker, whose influence on jazz history cannot be overstated, would have turned 100 in August 2020. To pay homage to him, Stafford invited two great contemporary viola players from different generations to explore the big band arrangements of a half a dozen classic Bird. melodies.
Veteran saxophonist Charles McPherson, 82, is a disciple of Parker so well versed in the music of the master that he was chosen to contribute to the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood’s biopic in 1988. Bird. He is also a gifted composer and performer of his own music, and has long been a member of the group of legendary bassist Charles Mingus. Jaleel Shaw, almost 40 years younger than McPherson, is originally from Philadelphia and known as an imaginative soloist and virtuoso.
The two saxophonists were a study of contrasts, but above all neither attempted to emulate Charlie Parker, while both, perhaps inevitably given Bird’s considerable influence, were evidently influenced by his revolutionary style. Parker’s six arrangements were played as a medley and served primarily as a jazz concerto for the two violas.
“Yardbird Suite” opened the tribute at a breakneck pace, with Shaw and McPherson exchanging extended solos. Shaw’s melted lines seemed effortless, pouring out of his horn with sweeping turns and nimble acrobatics. McPherson’s tone was sour and husky, soaring in screeches before plunging into growling horns. The senior saxophonist transformed melodies into gnarled lines at unpredictable angles, sprinkled with a fiery spirit that caused audiences to wake up at various times of the night.
The differences were particularly clear on the two ballads of the program. “Quasimodo,” which Parker wrote based on chord changes from the classic song “Embraceable You,” was cleverly traced back to its source when Shaw began his solo by humming the melody to the original standard. He continued to shoot elegant and seductive variations on the melody for a long time.
McPherson’s turn came with a rendition of “Lover Man,” best known for the painful version of Billie Holiday. After the group’s dramatic fanfare, McPherson entered with a wounded bluster, his breathy yet robust playing turning the melody into a weary lament for the world.
“Chasin ‘the Bird” was taken at an appropriate frantic pace, while “My Little Suede Shoes” found the big band swaying loudly, the playful melody switched to Lee Smith’s agile bass. A raucous version of Parker’s “Diverse” concluded the main program, before a quick rant through “Jingle Bells” sent the home crowd into the holiday spirit.