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Charlie Parker tributes have taken various routes over the years, from straightforward renderings like the classic Stitt Plays Bird (1964) to free-ranging reimaginings like Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls (2015) or Joe Lovano’s Bird Songs (2011).
Reed player and composer Kevin Sun splits the difference, sometimes specifying precise details borrowed or altered. “Greenlit,” as described in the liner notes for example, “borrows its harmony from Parker’s early pioneering composition ‘Confirmation’ and adds an oscillating metrical form and new melody.” Some are less specific. “Composite” deploys “a thickening web of melodies derived from four Parker blues compositions.”
So how does it sound? In a word: terrific. Nearly every piece has at least a bit of a recognizable Parker melody — either from the written form or a recorded improvised solo. But Sun’s writing creates new compositions from the old. Working as part of a core trio (with bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor), he variously adds parts for trumpet (Adam O’Farrill, who also contributed to Mahanthappa’s Bird project), guitar (Max Light) and piano (Christian Li, doubling on Fender Rhodes).
The writing makes for varied textures, richly detailed. Take that “Confirmation” adaptation, “Greenlit” — light, feathery and fast, with alto and trumpet taking turns on that oscillating rhythmic-melodic figure before coming together in a breakneck unison statement, and then witty solos in counterpoint with bass and drums. On “Du Yi’s Choir,” guitar chords and the polyphonic ancient Chinese sheng (played by Sun) bleed into a relaxed medium-tempo rewriting of “Dewey Square.” Sometimes it’s a simple timbral effect that refreshes the ear, like the juxtaposition of deep, woody clarinet with the metallic ping of muted trumpet on the alternating phrases of “Schaaple from the Appel.” (The title references both a Parker LP misspelling and the name of Bird scholar Phil Schaap, whose death in September came months after this recording). With any luck, these 15 succinct, sparkling performances will inspire another generation of Bird acolytes. — Jon Garelick