The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music weekend festival makes jazz live.
Hang around enough jazz clubs or festivals, and you’re bound to see a T-shirt or beat up saxophone case emblazoned with the words, “Bird Lives!” Bird is, of course, the nickname of Charlie Parker, one of the geniuses of modern jazz. I didn’t see the slogan anywhere at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s first annual jazz festival this weekend. But Friday night at the Marcus Center’s Wilson Theatre, it was perfectly clear that Parker’s legacy was alive.
It certainly was to Phil Woods, the featured guest at the festival’s Friday night concert, who started the second set of music with a story. While playing a dull gig in Greenwich Village, Woods learned that Parker was playing at Arthur’s Tavern, just across the street. Woods rushed over, his own alto sax in hand, and found Parker playing a cumbersome baritone sax—not his usual instrument. Woods offered to lend him his alto, and the two sat together on a piano bench as Parker played. Then, to Woods’ surprise, Parker handed the instrument back to him, and told him to take a solo. After the song, Parker leaned over and said quietly, “Sounds real good, Phil.”
Parker was only 32 at the time, but he’d be dead in three years. Woods was 22, just out of Juilliard, and impatient to get past the gigs that involved playing “Harlem Nocturne” ten times a night. Two years later, he released his first album on Prestige Records. And Friday night, you could hear the ties to Parker, as well as the musical restlessness that has driven Woods throughout his career.
Woods is now 83 (“but I have the body of an 82-year-old,” he joked), and came on stage with an oxygen tank in tow. His playing has lost some of the pyrotechnics that defined him in his prime—explosive, sheet-of-sound gyrations that were nonetheless exquisitely tuneful—but his lyrical mastery is still there. Friday night, the bulk of the tunes were Parker standards, frameworks for inventive and complex solos that strained the limits of the tunes’ harmonies, but never strayed into the atonal wilderness of “free” jazz. One of his neatest tricks is playing against the harmonic progression of a tune—as the harmonies ease chromatically downward toward the home base resolution, Woods will improvise in the opposite direction, like a nimble cat leaping from rock to rock in an avalanche. And while his clarion tone is still among the sweetest in the business, he didn’t hesitate adding a few honks and squeaks to his solo on Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” lest the mood become too saccharine.
But Woods was only part of the show, the elder statesman of the concert. Trumpeter and WCM alumnus Brian Lynch shared the front line for most of the concert, with the rhythm section courtesy of WCM’s house ensemble, We Six (pianist Mark Davis, bassist Jeff Hamann, drummer David Bayles). Lynch is a familiar figure to Milwaukee jazz fans, and a frequent collaborator with Woods, and he was in fine form tonight, finding a nice balance of fluidity and oomph in his solos. Members of the trio played impressive solos as well, but Hamann was especially deft at crafting a smart, soulful piece of music within the tiny frame of a couple of choruses.
The three horns of We Six opened both sets, and joined Woods and Lynch for a grand finale reading of Charlie Parker’s blues, “Au Privave.” Three generations jamming on a single tune, and a new generation of aspiring high-school students eagerly looking on. You could even imagine the ghost of Bird sitting next to Woods, taking it all in. And after the last sound died off, he might have turned to the musicians and said, “Sounds real good, cats.”