In his short life, Charlie “Bird” Parker forever changed jazz, by giving improvisers a new harmonic vocabulary and moving jazz in a new direction, from mere entertainment to a serious art form. Sixty years after his death at age 35, Parker’s influence remains undiminished. Musicians still study his harmonic concepts, analyze his compositions and pore over his recordings. One such musician is alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose 2015 album, “Bird Calls” (ACT), won the the 63rd annual DownBeat International Critics Poll Album of the Year honors. (That same poll also selected Mahanthappa as Alto Saxophonist of the Year and Rising Star Composer of the Year.)
But Mahanthappa’s “Bird Calls” is not the usual kind of tribute album. It doesn’t contain a single Charlie Parker tune. Instead, the DownBeat triple-crown winner crafted an album of completely new compositions, each of which draws its inspiration from a Parker solo or melody.
“Charlie Parker has always been a huge influence on me,” said Mahanthappa, 44, who will appear in an SCP Jazz concert Feb. 26 with his quintet (consisting of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Joshua White, bassist François Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston). Opening the program is Stefon Harris & Sonic Creed. “There are elements of his music that I consider timeless. The gifts that he gave us last forever. He made a lot of music possible, and much of the music that came after him would not have been possible without him.”
The initial idea behind “Bird Calls” came to Mahanthappa 20 years ago, while he was teaching and studying at Chicago’s DePaul University. “It was during a lesson I was teaching at DePaul where we were working on the melody to Charlie Parker’s famous ‘Donna Lee.’ We were breaking it down into small chunks — not always starting at the beginning — isolating little pieces of it so we could work on them. What was interesting in hearing little bits of the melody out of context was that they have a very modern sound, like something Bartók might write. And the rhythms are very advanced, very urban. I can hear a lot of R&B and hip-hop in what Bird was doing rhythmically. That’s what made me start thinking about a way to demonstrate the genius of Charlie Parker without playing his music.”
Though the idea came to him then, he didn’t do anything with it immediately. “There’s a great concert series at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center [in New York City] called ‘Lost Jazz Shrines,’ ” he recalled. “It’s usually dedicated to a particular venue — an important jazz venue that maybe doesn’t exist anymore. A couple of seasons ago, the theme was Birdland [a famous NYC jazz club] and Charlie Parker. I was one of three alto players who were asked to present a program, and I thought, maybe this was the time to think about this project. It rolled forward from there.”
Mahanthappa only wrote three new compositions for that show — “just to workshop them and test them out. Then I wrote a few more and we workshopped them, too.”
At this time, Mahanthappa’s main working group had been a quartet, but that changed for “Bird Calls.” “I really wanted to add a trumpet player to evoke that frontline that Charlie Parker had,” he said. “He had all these great trumpet players — Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and then there was Herb Pomeroy. I wanted to evoke that sound. So the band officially premiered in this form, playing this music, at the Newport Jazz Festival in August of 2014. We went into the studio and recorded later that week. And here we are!”
The son of South Asian immigrants, Mahanthappa was educated in American schools. “I grew up in Boulder, Colo., in a really great school district with lots of arts and music and a very open-minded educational philosophy,” he said. “If you showed any talent toward anything, the school found a way to foster and encourage it. I had a great teacher from the very beginning. I started playing the summer before fourth grade. The teacher I had then was the teacher I had until I left for college.”
In 1992, he graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and in 1998, received a master of fine arts degree in jazz composition from DePaul. “It’s always great to be back in Chicago, it’s where I cut my teeth,” he said. “I got a lot of experience in Chicago that led to what I’m doing now. The last time I saw something at Symphony Center, it was either Sonny Rollins or Pierre Boulez. To be on that stage is a thrill.”
While his Chicago performance will consist of works inspired by Charlie Parker, Mahanthappa emphasizes that it’s not necessary for listeners to have a deep knowledge of Bird’s music. “There’s much in this music that anybody can relate to — its joy, energy, or any number of emotions. I think one of the biggest problems in jazz right now is that audiences feel intimidated by the music — that they have to show up with a certain amount of knowledge, or they’re not going to get it. I don’t want anybody to feel like that.”
Jack Zimmerman, who retired as customer relations manager of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2014, is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.