Kevin Sun Re-Imagines Charlie Parker

Cover_Sun__3 Bird

SUN: Greenlit. Adroitness, Parts I & II. Composite. Onomatopoeia. Dovetail. Cheroot. Du Yi’s Choir.* Sturgis. Schaaple From the Appel. Arc’s Peel. PARKER: Big Foot. Talck-overseed-nete (Klact-oveeseds-stene). GILLESPIE-CLARKE: Salt Peanuts / Kevin Sun, t-sax/cl/*sheng; Adam O’Farrill, tpt; Max Light, gtr; Christian Li, pno/Fender Rhodes; Walter Stinson, bs; Matt Honor, dm / Endectomorph Music EMM-010

You can find information about Kevin Sun (b. 1991) on the Internet, but it’s all current, like the fact that he resides in New York, is editor-in-chief of Jazz Speaks, the official blog of The Jazz Gallery, that he is a jazz composer as well as a saxist, and that his “primary musical vehicle is “Great on Paper” (a.k.a. GOP), which features a typical jazz quartet configuration with a distinctly atypical bent towards the avant-garde and the folkloric (courtesy of All About Jazz),” but nothing about his background. This is what passes for a “biography” nowadays.

But in this, his fourth album, due for release on August 29, he has spent his efforts channeling Bird (Charlie Parker) through 10 originals and three rewritten Bird and Dizzy tunes . In these, he had modernized and updated Parker’s blistering-fast improvisational style by completely upsetting the traditional bebop concepts of harmony and rhythm into something quite avant-garde. “I tried to find and listen to every recording of Bird,” Sun is quoted as saying in the publicity blurb for this CD. “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….One thing I discovered was that, if you speed-adjust and superimpose multiple recorded takes of Charlie Parker, the pieces somehow add together into this miraculous counterpoint. It’s almost like he was hiding these musical Easter eggs for us to find, long after he was gone.”

A perfect example is the opening track, Greenlit, which opens with Sun playing a bizarre sort of theme that sounds like Charlie Parker, but then again doesn’t. It’s hard to describe; you really have to hear it to understand. As the rhythm section chugs away in its asymmetrical rhythms, Sun and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (the grandson of famed jazz composer-arranger Chico O’Farrill) play solos, the former incorporating certain Bird licks and the latter playing an original improvisation that bears no real resemblance to either Gillespie or Parker.

Adroitness Part I is a ballad in straight 4, played by Sun on sub-tone clarinet with Christian Li softly playing vibes-like sounds on the Fender Rhodes; Adroitness II is an uptempo romp which starts in asymmetric time but quickly shifts into a straight 4. One thing I noticed about Sun’s playing is that, although he is on tenor and not alto, he comes close to replicating that “edgy” sound that Bird always had in his upper register. During Li’s piano solo the rhythm stays in 4 but is redistributed unevenly with odd stresses on the off-beats and between-beats in the first chorus.

As one continues to listen to the CD, one will recognize the many Bird licks and phrases that Sun tosses into his modernistic musical gumbo. The effect is rather startling, similar to what one would hear if it were possible, for instance, to isolate Bix Beiderbecke’s solos from his 1920s recordings and superimpose them on a progressive swing or West Coast cool rhythm section. It’s not just the “spirit” of Bird that Sun replicates here, it’s the actual musical content that he left us, only with the underlying musical base shifted and updated. Onomatopoeia, for instance, is clearly built on Gillespie’s Be-Bop with a little taste of Parker’s Segment, and here he makes no bones about simply duplicating the frantic fast 4 of bebop in the rhythm, but in the very next piece, Dovetail, he returns to the clarinet and creates an “abstract dance through Parker’s two studio take improvisations of Yardbird Suite.” This is played in a slow 6/8, with Li’s piano solo being quite the harmonic adventure.

Lest someone out there complain that these kinds of pieces “misrepresent” Bird, let me remind you that, from about 1948 onward, the saxist was desperately trying to find new avenues of expression that would expand his musical ideas beyond the “one voice” he had on his saxophone. He wanted his music to have more layers, more complexity; one time, he called up Charles Mingus in the middle of the night and began improvising, over the phone, to a recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird. All during the early 1950s, he kept pestering classical composer Stefan Wolpe to take him on as a pupil; ironically, Wolpe finally agreed to do so—a week before Parker died. So there was, at least, some real intent on Parker’s part to expand his musical vocabulary as well as the context in which he played.

For all its Asian-sounding title, Du Yi’s Choir is almost a Latin-sounding piece, with the rhythm morphing from steady or asymmetric, then on to a fast 4, behind guitarist Max Light’s solo. When Sun returns for his solo, it’s amazing yet again how much of Parker he has assimilated into his system, even going very high up in his altissimo range to sound eerily like his model. Big Foot is a very clever rewriting of Parker’s Air Conditioning (or Giant Swing) using a subtle variety of underlying meters. Sturgis, which stays in a medium-slow 4 (though drummer Matt Honor throws in some military-sounding 4/4 on the snare drum which plays against the steady beat), is based on Parker’s improvisation on Mohawk. A slow, a cappella muted trumpet solo by O’Farrill leads us into a quite modern reimagining of Scrapple From the Apple, here renamed Schaaple from the Appel as a tribute to record producer Phil Schaap. Gillespie’s famous Salt Peanuts is played fairly straight, just a little slower in tempo than the original. Arc’s Peel, also based on a recorded improvisation by Parker in Scrapple, is a short clarinet solo, followed by the closer, a re-imagined, Latin-tinged version of Klact-oveeseds-stene.

By and large, one might describe this album as “techno-modern Bird,” but that’s all right because Parker’s spirit of adventure is clearly heard in each and every track. This one is a real gem!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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