Paquito. The Paq-Man. Paqmaninov. As we continued to exchange the familiar emails back and forth trying to match my schedule with that of the ten-time Grammy-Award-winning musician, it occurred to me that with every unique sign-off Paquito D’Rivera chose, he was bringing to my attention — whether intended or not — the complexity of his own career. Becoming renowned for his work with Latin music, jazz music, classical music, and everything in between is something that we must cherish for what it is: an unbridled and almost lustful pursuit of satisfying his musical urges, no matter where they may lie.
His latest endeavor coming to fruition this weekend is a tribute, at the behest of Jazz at Lincoln Center, to the pivotal ‘Charlie Parker with Strings’ album. Yet with Paqmaninov it couldn’t just end there. The concert will feature charts from the album plus some from Bird’s later work with Latin artists like Machito, as well as some unreleased music that will be premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Check out what The Paq-Man had to say about Bird’s influence, putting together the tribute, and more!
Tell me about the first time you actually heard Charlie Parker with Strings.
A friend of mine had the LP and played it for me. I was so impressed by it because Bird plays different and less aggressive than his other recordings. It’s a different environment. He was so adaptable and also so lyrical in this recording. It’s one of my two most favorite recordings by Bird along with the Massey Hall concert in Canada.
I’ve heard that Bird was actually more sober during this record than most other periods. Do you think that had an impact on the recordings?
I didn’t know that actually. In this case he plays so differently. It’s a mix between a symphonic player and a swinging cat. Bird was amazing, but it’s interesting to know that he was sober in those days.
I do know that he was playing a gorgeous horn in those days though — a King Super 20. I am a Yamaha artist and I think they make the best saxophone ever made, but for this occasion I bought a wonderful King Super 20. It’s from 1948 and more or less the same horn that Bird played in that recording.
What are some of the differences in playing on that horn?
It’s an aesthetical thing. I wanted to get closer to him by playing the same instrument that he used to play. Cannonball Adderley played this instrument too. It’s a very good-looking instrument.
A number of the songs Bird recorded throughout his career — and especially on this record — were popular music charts. What impact do you think these recordings had on the music scene in general?
Charlie Parker is the most influential saxophone player ever, and that’s counting Coltrane and everybody. Everybody has something from him either directly or indirectly. Even Kenny G has something from Charlie Parker [laughs]! Buddy DeFranco told me once, “Charlie Parker single-handedly invented this language that we call bebop today.” Of course that is his opinion; I don’t want to be so drastic.
If you hear Charlie Parker, they say his favorite saxophone player was Lester Young. Maybe that’s possible, but I don’t hear Lester Young in his playing at all. You can hear, for example, Roy Eldridge in Dizzy Gillespie’s playing. Of course Dizzy took that further, further, and further, that is indisputable. But at least you can hear some Roy Eldridge there. In Charlie Parker, what you hear is maybe Martian or something, somebody from another planet! Nobody on this planet played those lines before or the inflection with which he played. The way he blew into the alto was totally different. He was a great blues player, but I don’t think he played like Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter. He invented that shit!
Do you see any contemporary artists that have that much influence over the scene today?
No. I don’t think so. Still from the ‘40s, Charlie Parker has such a presence — Dizzy Gillespie also of course. Charlie Parker is the most influential saxophone player ever.
You are one of the few artists who are equally renowned in jazz and classical music. What is so special about the intersection of the jazz and classical aesthetics on this record?
Strings sections are not the most popular among jazz bops. But, I have never met any musician that doesn’t want to have a string section behind them at least once in their life. Nothing sounds like a string section — it’s celestial. Of course I prefer the jazz combo like everybody else, but I love big bands too. You know, I like black beans and rice the most, but if you take me to a good Italian restaurant, I’ll go for it!
The string section is just beautiful though. And in this case, we’re going to have something very special. I’m not limiting myself to play only Charlie Parker with Strings. We’re going to have like five of those charts, but we’re also going to have some other pieces as well. My contractor was our violinist and he hired all strings players who were improvisers too. Then I have an oboist and saxophonist named Charles Pillow who will be sharing Charlie Parker’s chair with me and he will also be improvising on the oboe, which is not very common.
We’ll be performing some of the pieces Bird recorded with Machito and some other Latin artists in addition to the wonderful Bird with Strings pieces. Of course I will be playing “Just Friends,” and for that I have his entire solo transcribed. That will be the only think we play note for note. I took a lot of inspiration from the work Med Flory did with Supersax in transcribing all of those beautiful Charlie Parker solos. I wanted to do a tribute to Charlie Parker in great class and in a really creative way.
In addition to all of that, Johnny Carisi wrote a wonderful piece specifically for the Bird with Strings session, which was never released. The piece, “When The Spring Is Here,” was recorded many, many years later by Waren Vaché. We’ll premier it as was written for the Bird. It’s going to be fun! I’m not sure if Jazz at Lincoln Center is using this, but I’m calling the concert “To Bird, With Strings,” just like To Bird with Love.
Aside from this concert, what are you working on currently?
I just finished today a symphonic work that was originally a commission for eight clarinets. Then I started working and working and working and I ended up making a 12-minute symphonic piece called “The Elephant and the Clown.” It is inspired by a clown I worked with on TV when I was younger and a story he told me about a circus elephant that was stolen. Imagine stealing an elephant! So my friend Maliki, the clown, recently passed away and I was inspired by reading his book. Then I was commissioned by the Vandoren company to write it for eight clarinets and then I expanded it for a symphony orchestra. So that is what I am working on these days.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)