It would seem an odd choice for a drummer to be paying tribute to a saxophonist, but that odd prejudice flies out the window when considering that the saxophonist in question is Charlie Parker. So much has been said out about Bird, his career, and his pervasive influence that there is very little present in today’s vast jazz landscape that cannot be traced back to his immense contribution to the art. With his latest release, Birds of a Feather: A Tribute to Charlie Parker, legendary drummer Roy Haynes shows that there is still a need for a fresh perspective on familiar territory.
Among his many gifts as an improvisational artist, Parker redefined how every jazz musician after him would approach rhythmic inflections. Take any readily available Parker be-bop solo transcription, strip it down to pure rhythm and it is readily apparent: the man knew how to dance. To any run-of-the-mill “hi-hat on two-and-four” drummer, that discovery must have been an epiphany.
Roy Haynes is an illustrious elder statesman of jazz drumming, having played along side such eminent figures of the jazz pantheon as Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Sarah Vaughn, and, of course, Parker. At the age of 76, Haynes exhibits the sustained prowess and drive of players half his age; by teaming with the prodigious talents of bassist Dave Holland, pianist Dave Kikoski, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Haynes comfortably finds himself among equals.
Opening with a short solo to set up the head on “Diverse”, Haynes resolutely establishes himself as someone who knows what he is talking about, having shared the bandstand with the artist in question. That sort of authority can be intimidating and invariably demanding upon those sharing in the task at hand. However, Holland and Kikoski — both auspicious veterans in their own right — meet the challenge head on, forming a rock solid rhythm backing for Garrett and Hargrove.
Little, if any, of Birds of a Feather is dedicated to the mere re-creation of style or the payment of simple lip service to a few of Parker’s tunes from his compositional catalogue. Instead, the disc honors his legacy. The quintet makes fresh forays into his repertoire and offers an exciting new take on well-established tunes, from the overlapping contrapuntal rendering of the melody to “Ah Leu Cha” to the ’60s free-wheeling fusion feel of “Now’s the Time”.
In a sense, Garrett finds himself thrust into the lead role, if only by the virtue of the fact that he instrumentally represents Parker here. Instead of trying to imitate, Garrett sticks to his sound and style, even through somewhat straight-ahead versions of “Yardbird Suite” and “Moose the Mooch”. Having an impressive resume himself (having played with Miles and so many other greats), Garrett has little reason to content himself with serving as a musical surrogate.
As the resident young lion, the 31-year-old Hargrove seems completely at home surrounded by these giants. Taking a short-but-sultry turn on the Vernon Duke ballad “April in Paris” and offering up some of the most soul-stirring moments of the album with “The Gypsy”, Hargrove’s improvisational work illustrates an enormous capacity for melodic simplicity coupled with exquisite harmonic taste. With his blistering take on the Cole Porter classic “What Is This Thing Called Love?”, the final tune on the album, Hargrove shows that he is not the slightest bit intimidated by his environs.
Dripping with talent, Birds of a Feather is not just about the single contribution of a solitary member of the quintet. Haynes is not the focal point here, though he still has the strongest hand in guiding the shape and feel of many of the tracks. Instead, he has assembled a collection of musicians who are genuinely intrigued by the prospect of conversing and sharing, immersing themselves in what Charlie Parker, and the music that represents him on this disc, has come to mean to their art.