MacArthur genius Zenón takes on jazz genius Parker

Publication: Chicago Tribune
Author: Howard Reich
Date: February 20, 2012

Outside of Louis Armstrong, perhaps no musician commands greater reverence among jazz devotees than Charlie Parker. His virtuosity as alto saxophonist, brilliance as improviser and genius as a creator of bebop place him in the pantheon of jazz originals — alongside icons such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Jelly Roll Morton.

Which makes Friday night’s concert by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble — “Ornithology: The Music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker” — a moment of both possibility and peril. No musician takes lightly the prospect of performing an evening of Bird’s music, due to its inherent technical and artistic hurdles. Yet the musicians who can hold their own in this repertoire emerge as victors, proving that they can address some of the most daunting work ever conceived in jazz.

For this program, CJE artistic director Dana Hall has engaged a singular alto saxophonist who, like Bird, also has looked relentlessly forward in every facet of his art: Miguel Zenón. Winner of a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” Zenón has been fearless in bringing his Puerto Rican heritage to bear on his jazz compositions and improvisations, particularly in albums such as “Alma Adentro” (the best jazz release of 2011) and “Esta Plena” (an important release in 2009).Yet even Zenón approaches Friday’s event with eyes (and ears) wide open.

Charlie Parker is my greatest inspiration as a saxophone player — anything that involves him entails a large amount of respect,” says Zenón, 35. “You’ve got to be careful how you approach it. … But I’m not going to try to emulate what he played. He’s Charlie Parker, and I’m me.”

Obviously, trying to mimic Bird would be a waste of time, but finessing this program will be particularly tricky, because Zenón, Hall and the CJE won’t be drawing on familiar Parker originals. Instead, they’ll be playing excerpts from the somewhat controversial “Charlie Parker with Strings” album, which tends to divide listeners into distinct camps. Some admire the lush sound of the recording, which veers far from Parker’s explosive, small-group jazz. Others consider it a mostly commercial affair in which an otherwise phenomenally mercurial player is tamed, to some degree, playing popular standards before a somewhat bland orchestral backdrop.

Neither Hall nor Zenón accept this criticism, and both firmly believe that the “Charlie Parker with Strings” repertoire — plus rarely heard outtakes — is eminently worth revisiting more than half a century later.

We get to hear Charlie Parker singing through his horn on these melodies,” says Hall, who also serves as drummer for the CJE (which is based at Columbia College Chicago). “The interaction between the rhythm players and soloists that he has in other groups, we don’t find on these recordings.

So he has this blank slate. We hear his true genius and mastery of music. It’s not so much about the arrangements or the writing — it’s about Bird.”

Zenón goes a step further, arguing that even the semi-classical orchestral accompaniment has a great deal to recommend it, and that the recording’s critics are wrong.

I disagree (with the critics) totally,” says Zenón. “I actually think the writing is incredible. It’s very advanced harmonically and form-wise. I’ve been going back to the recording and listening more (in preparation for Friday’s concert), and I think it made Charlie Parker play differently. He played something that he wouldn’t play in another situation: different modulations, (weaving) in and out of the ensemble. I think it’s amazing. It’s one of his peaks as a player, and as a recording.”

Whether Zenón and Hall can make this historic music sound freshly urgent to a 21st century audience remains to be heard. But Hall believes Zenón is uniquely poised to do so, in that he has built his career defying conventional notions of a jazz musician’s path. Even if Zenón’s efforts to view jazz through the lens of his Puerto Rican heritage (and vice versa) likely helped him win the MacArthur Fellowship, he remains a musician on a deeply personal musical quest. In effect, Zenón seeks out the extraordinarily complex rhythms and ancient folkloric song forms of his homeland as fervently as Parker toiled to find extended harmonies and a new rhythmic approach to jazz improvisation.

Zenón, adds Hall, is “what I consider the quintessential musician of the 21st Century. … He’s involved in a number of recent projects that look at his Puerto Rican heritage, but he’s not necessarily trying to look for some kind of fusion of American jazz with Puerto Rican rhythm. He’s just seeing how the music that he grew up with is connected with other music of the world.

A lot of people have looked at ‘Charlie Parker with Strings’ as some sort of bow to commercialism. But it wasn’t — it was Charlie Parker’s desire to connect with modern music, and to have a different color palette for that connection, and that different color palette was strings. Miguel does the same thing. He’s looking for different colors, different palettes, showing modern music connecting in interesting ways.”

If Hall is right, we’ll hear “Charlie Parker with Strings” re-imagined. If not, we’ll chalk up the occasion as a noble experiment in some very elusive repertoire.

Critic Whitney Balliett famously defined jazz as “the sound of surprise.” Which appears to be precisely what Zenón and Hall have in mind.

Ornithology: The Music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker” will play 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Dr.; $18-$48; 312-334-7777 or or In addition, a public “Listening Session” featuring Zenón and Hall will run from noon to 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Columbia College Chicago’s Stage Two, 618 S.Michigan Ave.; free.