Charlie Parker on "Confirmation"

It's slowly dawned on me that having a personal relationship with your musical heroes is one of the defining characteristics of great improvisors in the jazz tradition. That is, developing your own vocabulary to describe how an influential artists sounds to you and exploring the implications of that vocabulary leads you past simple imitation and toward sounds that you can identify as your own. I noticed this last year listening to the way Vijay Iyer described how Monk's piano playing sounded to him, which interrogated and eschewed hand-me-down conceptions of Monk's playing and replaced those with a more rigorous, more passionately derived conception of the artist's sonic profile (check out Iyer's "Ode to a Sphere" for a sense of this one-to-one relationship). 

Steve Coleman's relationship to Bird is another one of those exemplary one-to-one relationships. His seminal essay on Bird for The Dozens offers a glimpse into Coleman's unique, influential interpretation of Bird, and this particular essay offers numerous examples of the vocabulary Coleman's developed to describe what he hears: "backpedaling," "invisible paths," "the Matrix," "rhyming," "dark side/light side," "cutting corners," "connectants," and the linguistic structures, symmetries, and patterns he identifies throughout these solos. 

Coleman describes this three-chorus solo on "Confirmation," recorded live in Carnegie Hall in 1947, as an "epic story." I heard this solo only after hearing Coleman's arrangement of "Confirmation," featuring a six-beat cycle (short-long-short-short-short-short), but seeing his analysis of this track makes it clear why he decided to include a version of it on Def Trance Beat. Here's the solo:


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Speaking of Bird, a friend brought to my attention the other day the contributions of Phil Schaap, perhaps best-known for his decades at Columbia University's WKCR. I haven't yet had a chance to tune in, but I mightily enjoyed this 2008 New Yorker profile of Schaap by David Remnick. The piece is full of rather incredible stories, but my favorite two are (1) how Schaap met Papa Jo Jones at age five:
“In August, 1956, I went to the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival with my mother, and we saw Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, and a lot of others,” he said. “At one point, we went backstage after the Basie band played. Remember, this is through the hazy recollections of a five-year-old, but I do recall someone trying to hit on my mother, and he asked her about Joe Williams, who was singing then for Basie. To brush the guy off, she said she preferred the earlier singer for the Basie band, Jimmy Rushing, and at that point another man, who turned out to be Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, said, ‘Madame, I heard that—that was wonderful.’ The two of them got to talking, and Jo asked me if I knew who Prince Robinson was. I said that he was a tenor player for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. I’d heard a Bluebird 78 that my father owned. Jo Jones was impressed. So he said, ‘Madame, you’ve got yourself a new babysitter.’ ”
 And (2) how he later coached Sun Ra on Ra's own earthly history over Baskin-Robbins ice cream:
By the time Schaap was established on the radio, nearly every musician who passed through New York was aware of his mental tape recorder. Twenty-five years ago, the bandleader, pianist, and self-styled space cadet Herman (Sonny) Poole Blount, better known as Sun Ra, swept by a night club and, before having to give a speech at Harvard, “kidnapped” Schaap. Sun Ra claimed that as a young man he had been “transmolecularized” to Saturn, and thereafter he expounded a cosmic philosophy influenced by ancient Egyptian cosmology, Afro-American folklore, and Madame Blavatsky. In order to prepare for his audience in Cambridge, Sun Ra insisted that Schaap fill him in on the details of his existence on Earth. Schaap obliged, telling Sun Ra that, according to his musicians’ union forms, he was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. “I could tell him things like what 78s by Fletcher Henderson he was listening to in the thirties and about his time playing piano for the Henderson Orchestra later on,” Schaap said. “He was vague about it all, but what I said made sense to him. I also knew that his favorite flavor of ice cream was the Bananas ’n Strawberry at Baskin-Robbins. It was a hot summer night, so I went up the block and bought him a quart, and we ate sitting in the car.”