When alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose playing transformed the post-WWII jazz world, died in 1955, graffiti began to appear on urban walls across the country: “Bird Lives.”
That phrase kept coming to mind Tuesday night at Vibrato in Bel Air during the performance of Med Flory’s big band, Jazz Wave, and the sax ensemble, Supersax.
Playing crisp, well-crafted arrangements, Jazz Wave belied the fact that it was, like most big jazz bands, an intermittent ensemble, performing with minimal rehearsal time. In selections reaching from the hard-swinging Woody Herman tribute, “One for Woody,” to the soaring balladry of “Invitation,” with an atmospheric piano solo by John Campbell, and “It’s You or No One,” a showcase number for alto player Lanny Morgan, the music was delivered with enthusiasm, verve and the sheer pleasures of big-band jazz.
But it was the selections that featured the five-man saxophone section, playing the Supersax arrangements, that gave the evening its special cachet.
Flory, along with the late bassist Buddy Clark, formed Supersax in the early ‘70s to perform harmonized versions of Charlie Parker solos, winning a Grammy in 1974. Various incarnations of the ensemble have taken place in succeeding decades, always featuring Flory navigating the crucial lead alto part.
This version of Supersax had its ups and downs. The arrangements are harmonically dense, with Flory’s alto and Jack Nimitz’s baritone saxophone usually playing the lead an octave apart, the other three horns filling out the internal harmonies.
In the lyrical lines of slow blues such as “Parker’s Mood,” the results were gripping -- passionate expressions of Parker’s deep immersion in the roots of jazz. In faster tunes -- “Just Friends” and “Moose the Mooche” -- the rapid-fire complexity of the inner parts occasionally suggested a swarm of angry bees.
But when everything came together, the genius of Parker’s improvisations and the value of developing their potential in this intriguing fashion became crystal clear.
Improvised jazz solos are often considered inferior to, say, a classical instrumental concerto. But the performances of Supersax illustrate the extraordinary potential of the spontaneous creative imagination -- potential that clearly has possibilities reaching well beyond the recorded original.