With this year marking the 50th anniversary of saxophonist Charlie Parker's death, all manner of tributes are likely to crop up. Italian saxophonist Stefano di Battista has already released the reverent Parker's Mood. But when British saxophonist Martin Speake spoke in an interview last year of doing a Parker tribute, given his proclivity for placing a more personal stamp on his projectsas evidenced by Exploring Standards' refashioning of well-heeled tunes into brief miniatures of remarkable depthone could be certain that an homage from Speake would steadfastly avoid the obvious. And, true enough, while Charlie Parker is an album inspired by the music of Parker, it's anything but a literal interpretation.
On a programme that mixes tunes written or often interpreted by Parker with a handful of Speake originals, Speake has assembled an unusual quartet. Eschewing the more traditional piano/bass/drums rhythm section, Speake instead supplements bassist Simon Thorpe and drummer Dave Wickins with guitarist Mick Outrama player who has been associated with him for the past few years.
The opening notes of "Don't Blame Me herald that this will be no straight-ahead bebop session. If there's any precedence for the elastic time sense here, it's in the work of drummer Paul Motian's longstanding trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell. Wicks, while possessing a stronger disposition to defined time, is nevertheless a colourist like Motian, with especially evocative playing on the gentle "I'm in the Mood for Love.
Parker's "Diverse, instead of being a high energy bebop tune, is taken at a more relaxed pace, with Thorpe's melodic solo over Wickins' brushes introducing the track, before Speake and Outram enter with the familiar theme. As always, Speake solos with a lyricism and economy that is diametrically opposed to Parker's more virtuoso style, but he manages to capture the essence of Bird without imitation.
"Donna Lee begins with Speake alone. Outram, Thorpe, and Wickins enter one at a time, building a freely improvised kind of counterpoint until the quartet finally comes together for the almost iconic theme.
For the most part, Speake and the group avoid the typical bebop theme/round of solos/theme format. Instead, one is just as apt to find the group in a collective improvising mode, loosely interpreting a familiar theme, as they do on the gentle rubato opening of "I'm in the Mood for Love and the equally openended "My Old Flame. Along with Speake, Outram is one of those well-kept British secrets that deserve broader exposure in North America. He understands the tradition, but brings to it a more modern approach that includes more open harmonic voicings and a linear approach that alludes to but expands on, rather than imitating, the bebop mold.
By not treating its source as an immovable museum piece, Charlie Parker is the best kind of tributeone that views the music as a living, breathing entity. Speake may look back in fondness, but his quartet's interpretations look forward with anticipation and the excitement of new discovery.
Personnel: Martin Speake (alto saxophone), Mike Outram (guitar), Simon Thorpe (double-bass), Dave Wickins (drums)