One of rock’s nastier secrets is that the Rolling Stones’ peerless timekeeper , Charlie Watts, is a closet jazz freak. Between Stones tours, Watts tries to re-ignite his early jazz connections–and his current act is by far his most successful attempt.
Indeed, the roots of this affectionate, authentic-sounding tribute to Charlie Parker date to the pre-Stone Age when Watts, then a graphic designer, created a children’s book called “Ode to a High-Flying Bird.” When the book was reissued last year, Watts formed a quintet to musically illustrate his illustrations–and they delivered a superb live album, “A Tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings” (Continuum) in May.
Those who’d scoff at this tour as a rich man’s plaything will be surprised by the depth of Watts’ commitment to jazz. Watts has a good command of bebop rhythms and patterns–light and swinging on the brushes, adept at fast tempos, a bit heavy on the accented “bombs” on the snare drum. And anyone who knows the opening paradiddles of “Sympathy for the Devil” wouldn’t have been shocked by Watts’ easy handling of the Latin groove on “Terra de Pajaro.”
Alto saxophonist Peter King essentially ran the show as music director, Parker imitator and composer of several engaging tunes in an informed early-bebop style. Using fewer notes than his model, King could approximate the Parker manner decently, at times eloquently–and the young trumpeter Gerald Presencer offered some brash commentary.
Along with King’s pieces, the quintet deftly handled a number of Parker originals (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and “Now’s the Time”) and Parker-associated standards like “Laura” and “Perdido.”
Having Bernard Fowler keep up a running narrative/parable of Parker’s life gave the concert a solid structure–and the outboard octet that simulated Parker’s recordings with strings gave it historical integrity (one of jazz’s nasty secrets is that Parker was fiercely proud of his string groups). Though the Palace’s sound system turned the four violins, viola, cello, oboe and harp into a raucous mess, these players were often more expressive than Parker’s original personnel.
Hands down, this was a far more satisfying group than the elephantine big band that Watts brought to the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1987. It may well be the most artistically successful solo project by any Rolling Stone, regardless of category.