- Charles McPherson, the sax man behind the Bird biopic.
Back in the late '40s, during his peak and still a few years away from the heroin addiction that would cripple his career, saxophonist Charlie Parker wanted to take hardcore jazz into a new realm. He signed to Verve in 1949 and realized a lifelong dream of recording with strings. The subsequent records not only shaped the jazz world, but changed the way 20th-century music was applied and heard as well. Cleveland Chamber Symphony conductor Edwin London was just one of many artists influenced by this union. "I started following Charlie Parker in 1944," he says, "and I was just taken with him."
Combining his interest in Parker's music with contemporary classical pieces, London has assembled Bird With Strings, a program that he hopes will bridge the two often-divided genres. "Jazz is an important aspect of 20th-century music, and it should be able to bear being matched together with other kinds of music," he explains. "There are certain kinds of program building where you try to take a knockout punch, where one piece knocks out the other. Or you can bring out the best in everything. This is an inclusive program, not an exclusive one, and it should pay off."
Starting with Wallingford Riegger's "Study in Sonority" and working its way through such post-1930 classical works as Ned Rorem's "Poemes Pour la Paix" and Edward Miller's "Images From the Eye of the Dolphin," the second half of Bird With Strings is dedicated to Parker's string-based jazz. Charles McPherson, who recorded the alto sax parts for director Clint Eastwood's Parker biopic Bird, will perform with his quartet and the symphony.
"This was an interesting and different way to market his talent," London says of Parker's initial foray into orchestral jazz. "It meant a great deal for people to hear this departure from the normal way. It was a completely different sound, and it attracted a great deal of people to what Bird was doing. It shows a seminal side to Parker that you don't get with a quartet or quintet."
London, who has been with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony for 22 seasons, says his ear for exploration enables him to "make the juxtaposition between classical music and jazz improvisation. There's a gamut that we hope to run." He adds that he is particularly interested in seeing the individual parts open up to improvisation.
If you feel like giving your brain a workout prior to the 8 p.m. performance, a "composers encounter pre-concert discussion" will take place at 7:15. "Some people will ask, 'Why are you doing this?'" London says. "Others will say, 'That's wonderful.'
"I can't predict how the audience will react. I can only hope."