Things to Do

A Conversation with Steve Wilson

The saxophonist revisits a jazz classic this weekend at the Kennedy Center

Saxophonist Steve Wilson is performing at the Kennedy Center this weekend. Photograph by John Abbott

In 1950, jazz icon Charlie Parker, better known to contemporaries as Bird, released a pair of albums collectively titled Bird with Strings, Vols. I and II. At the time, he encountered some criticism for choosing not to play the bebop compositions that had made him famous. Instead, Parker brought his innovations to orchestrated renditions of the Great American Songbook­—the pop tunes of the day. Despite initial controversy, the recordings were among Parker’s favorite projects, and milestones that went on to serve as a template for future orchestral jazz by luminaries such as trumpeter Clifford Brown, saxophonist Stan Getz and vocalist Billie Holiday.

Steve Wilson, one of the today’s most acclaimed saxophonists, will re-visit this seminal recording this weekend at the Kennedy Center. Though Wilson and his ensemble will be using many of the original arrangements from Bird with Strings, he’s quick to note that the group isn’t attempting to replicate the original experience.

“Charlie Parker is one of the greatest geniuses we’ve had in this art form, or any art form,” says Wilson. “Simply, there’s no one that can recreate that level of creativity.”

While Wilson was very familiar with Parker’s original recordings, he didn’t know that the arrangements from the sessions were available until three years ago, when he performed a few that had been compiled by composer/arranger Robert Sadin. The two collaborators went on to acquire other arrangements that Parker used during live engagements at Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theatre, which featured pianist Billy Taylor, the Kennedy Center’s late artistic director for jazz. In addition to this material, which can be heard on various Parker compilations, this weekend’s program will include orchestrations that were prepared for a third Strings session that never took place due to Bird’s untimely passing in 1955. Playing all of these scores, familiar or not, has been an engaging and ear-opening experience for Wilson.

“The sensation of playing with a string section just can’t be equaled, whether it’s a quartet, quintet or an orchestra. It’s one of the most exhilarating experiences that one can have as a soloist,” Wilson explains. “For myself, I’m actually trying to shape my solo within the context of the string sound.”

Joining Wilson for these concerts will be a veteran rhythm section comprised of first-call drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Bruce Barth and area native Michael Bowie on bass. Due to logistical and budgetary reasons, the ensemble will not include oboe and harp, which were present on the original recordings. However, the arrangements will be augmented in other ways. Nearly all of the solos were given to Parker’s saxophone, but Wilson wanted to expand the improvisational passages to include not only the rhythm section, but also the string players. Wilson tapped Diane Monroe and Troy Stuart because he wanted violinists who could solo in a jazz setting. These two talents, along with local musicians who will round out the string section, constitute what Wilson sees as the heart and soul of this weekend’s performances.

“Strings have such an emotional sound. When you get a great string section, those instruments evoke such an emotional content. It’s close to the human voice,” he says. “It makes you appreciate and realize why people love great classical music.”

Steve Wilson & Co. will perform Bird with Strings during 7:30 and 9:30PM sets on Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s KC Jazz Club. Tickets ($26 to $30) are available at the Kennedy Center’s Web site.