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Bird Lives!

We interviewed American saxophonist Greg Banaszak who performed an exceptional tribute show dedicated to the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker

Sunil Sampat Aug 10, 2015
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American saxophonist Greg Banaszak Photo: Courtesy of the NCPA

American saxophonist Greg Banaszak Photo: Courtesy of the NCPA

On August 8th, a performance of “Bird With Strings,”  Bird being the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker,  was performed at the NCPA. The Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) backed a jazz quartet for the concert.

This concert  itself was quite unique for several reasons – I had not heard anyone attempt this complex exercise of re-creating a large string section of over 20 musicians for jazz, few people seem either capable or inclined to play the music of Bird at his very high standards and certainly, there has never been a jazz concert of this type in Mumbai.

“Bird with Strings” in the original is a series of recordings from 1950 which are amongst the finest recordings in jazz history. They are perennial, haunting but remarkably contemporary in every musical way.

The NCPA rendition was a daring enterprise and one had feared would be below par, considering the huge challenge the music itself poses. The apprehension was about the caliber of saxophone play since Charlie Parker had set an impossibly high water mark.

However, American saxophonist Greg Banaszak was simply outstanding and the concert was like a revisit with the great Bird himself. I spoke to Greg Banaszak after the performance. We are both in awe of Charlie Parker and it seemed more like a fan club meeting, but I was also trying to pick Greg’s brain! Here are a few excerpts from the chat:

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Are you a classical musician or a jazz man?
A bit of both! For the jazz component, I play with various musicians.

Where is home?
Cleveland, Ohio now but I’m originally from Buffalo, NY.

And the saxophone, how did you take to that?
Growing up in Buffalo, as neighbors of [jazz saxophonist] Grover Washington Jr. As a kid, I loved the sound of the sax he played, although I didn’t know what it was called! My mom got me one. Later, I studied at Hartt College in Hartford, CT.

Did you know that Charlie Parker also had his mom buy him a sax as a kid? She had to save up to get him his horn.
I didn’t know that. Very interesting.

What’s the Bird connection with you, if any?
I studied the sax at Hartt College from the famous Jackie McLean, who was taught by Charlie Parker himself! I also like the sound of Phil Woods, also from Bird’s tradition.

I noticed tonight [at the concert], you played the music note for note from Bird’s recordings.
That music is magical, a perfect ten. Best to play it like that. Why tamper with perfection?

Bird and his music was  pure instinctive genius. Has there been another jazz player ever who can compare in that sphere?
Maybe Bud Powell….naa…there are a couple of musicians I think very highly of, Brad Melhdau [piano], Kenny Garrett….the future looks good.

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Sonny Stitt, Bird’s contemporary was thought of as a “copycat” of Charlie Parker. I had once asked him what the story was and Stitt had said, “He was in Kansas City, I was in Chicago not aware of his sound.” What do you think, Greg?
Oh! Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt may have sounded similar to some people but they came from different sensibilities.  Bird was a Mozart while Sonny Stitt was a Bach!!


Watch rare footage of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and his live performances.

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