Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Players

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This is Jazz in the 21st century: these players hear the music differently. The music of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players takes from the Jazz tradition while at the same time synthesizing influences and inspirations from disparate, contemporary musical sources – something that Jazz has done throughout it existence.”
- The Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles

Some beginning thoughts and observations.

First of all, I am not a Jazz critic.

I know from personal experience how hard it is to play this stuff so in my role as “the editorial staff at JazzProfiles,” I refrain from criticizing, in the negative sense of that term, Jazz that doesn’t appeal to me.

So when John Dorhauer reached out and asked if I would be interested in listening to Emergency Postcards, a self-produced CD by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players [HUP], a large Jazz ensemble based in an area west of Chicago of which John is the Director, I said that I would be happy to give it a listen, but that I wouldn’t promise to write about it if I didn’t like the music.

I’ve been struggling with how to write a review of Emergency Postcards ever since.

Not because I didn’t like the HUP’s music, but mainly because I didn’t understand what I was listening to.

Not being a critic – “Yes, I liked it and here’s why; not I didn’t like it and here’s why” - I was confronted with the dilemma Peter Keepnews succinctly states in the following:

“Those of us who have tried writing about Jazz know what a daunting challenge it can be to do it well. Expressing an opinion about a given musician or recording is easy; explaining what exactly it is that makes that musician or recording worth caring about is not.”

Secondly, I have commented previously and at length about the role of texture or sonority, in other words, the way the music sounds, in composing and arranging music for big bands.

The earlier expositions on the role of texture in big band orchestrations are most notably to be found in my earlier posts on the music of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Here’s an excerpt from my earlier piece on Maria Schneider’s music by way of explanation:

“When writing about the music of Maria Schneider, the “texture” of her music is often stressed as that quality which makes it so unique and so appealing.

But what is a musical definition of “texture” which joins with melody, harmony and rhythm [meter] as a fourth building block used to create a musical composition?

Ironically, of the four basic musical atoms, the most indefinable yet the one we first notice is – “texture.”

“Texture” is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.

Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.

Often our first and most lasting impression of a composition is usually based on that work’s texture, even though we are not aware of it. Generally, we receive strong musical impressions from the physical sound of any music and these then determine our emotional reaction to the work.” [Emphasis, mine]

Thirdly, I wrote this about the young Italian alto saxophonist Francesco Cafiso in a previous profile:

“Some young, Jazz players use a lot of notes in their solos.

This tendency seems to be a part of the joys of first expression; the thrill of discovering that you can play an instrument and play it well.

Kind of like: “Look what I’ve found? Look what I can do? Isn’t this neat?”

Another reason why these young, Jazz musicians play so many notes is because they can.

They are young, indiscriminately so, and they want to play everything that rushes through their minds, getting it from their head into their hands almost instantly.

Their Jazz experience is all new and so wonderful; why be discerning when you can have it all?

If such abilities to “get around the instrument” were found in a young classical musician romping his or her way through one of Paganini’s Caprices, they would be celebrated as a phenomena and hailed as a prodigy.

Playing Paganini’s Caprices, Etudes, et al. does take remarkable technical skills, but in fairness, let’s remember that Paganini already wrote these pieces and the classical musician is executing them from memory.

In the case of the Jazz musician, playing complicated and complex improvisations requires that these be made up on the spot with an unstated preference being that anything that has been played before in the solo cannot be repeated.

But often times when a Jazz musician exhibits the facility to create multi-noted, rapidly played improvised solos, this is voted down and labeled as showboating or derided as technical grandstanding at the expense of playing with sincerity of feeling.

Such feats of technical artistry are greeted with precepts such as “It’s not what you play, but what you leave out” as though the young, Jazz performer not only has to resolve the momentary miracle of Jazz invention, but has to do so while solving a Zen koan at the same time [What is the sound of the un-played note or some such nonsense].”

And lastly, in April, 1962 during what was then called "Easter Week", I was the drummer in a quintet that won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival which was held annually at The Lighthouse Cafe located in Hermosa Beach, CA.

Much of the music that our quintet played was inspired by and/or derived from the Paul Horn Quintet.

By 1962, nearly every Jazz fan was familiar with the modal Jazz played by the Miles Davis Sextet in the Kind of Blue album, and with "unusual" time signatures immortalized by the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out! album.

Modal Jazz uses scales instead of chord progressions as the basis for its themes [melodies] and improvisations. For “unusual time signatures” think the 5/4 of Paul Desmond’s Take Five or Dave Brubeck’s Blues Rondo a la Turk which is in 9/8 time but counted as 2-2-2-3 . In other words, those in other than the more standard 2/4 and 4/4 time.

What made the Paul Horn Quintet particularly appealing to our us was that it was playing modal Jazz in combination with unusual time signatures, just the thing to peak the musical interest of 5 young lads ranging in ages from 18-22.

Still with me? Here’s a recapitulation of the four points I’ve been discussing.

[1] - explaining what exactly it is that makes that musician or recording worth caring about is not an easy thing to do

-2] - “Texture” is the word that is used to refer to the actual sound of the music. This encompasses the instruments with which it is played; its tonal colors; its dynamics; its sparseness or its complexity.

Texture involves anything to do with the sound experience and it is the word that is used to describe the overall impression that a piece of music creates in our emotional imagination.

[3] - “Some young, Jazz players use a lot of notes in their solos.

This tendency seems to be a part of the joys of first expression; the thrill of discovering that you can play an instrument and play it well.

Kind of like: “Look what I’ve found? Look what I can do? Isn’t this neat?”

Another reason why these young, Jazz musicians play so many notes is because they can.

They are young, indiscriminately so, and they want to play everything that rushes through their minds, getting it from their head into their hands almost instantly.

Their Jazz experience is all new and so wonderful; why be discerning when you can have it all?

[4] - playing modal Jazz in combination with unusual time signatures, just the thing to peak the musical interest young … Jazz musicians who want to put their own stamp on the music.

Let’s see if I can tie these four observations together as they relate to Heisenberg Uncertainty Players, Emergency Postcards CD.

I was intrigued by the music’s texture [sound], by the technical virtuosity and facility of the young musicians playing it, engaged by their youthful exuberance  in executing it, constantly surprised by the new directions these talented players pushed the music, amused by their audaciousness in combining meter and melody in unexpected ways [Dave Brubeck would have loved these guys], amazed by the music’s humor and its poignancy [let alone some of its complicated song titles] and otherwise completely baffled about how I was going to explain the music and why I liked it.

So I did the next best thing.

I contacted John Dorhauer, the Musical Director of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players – not to be confused with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Physics – and asked him if he would make clear what’s going on in the music for each of the tracks on the CD.

Much to my delight [and, relief], he agreed and sent along the following annotations.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Players, Emergency Postcards

“Death & Taxes”

This lead track from EP features a perpetual funk groove that winds through a few distinct permutations before finally returning to the opening idea.  The melody is first heard in a trio of trumpet, alto sax, and trombone, and this is immediately repeated with everyone joining in on the fun.  This gives way to the first solo (Tim Koelling, alto sax), which features backgrounds that progressively build the ensemble to a climax, only to drop back down in texture for the second solo (Andrew Ecklund, trumpet).  This section begins with a spacey, ambient version of the funk groove, but it switches back to the original hook halfway through.  After a brief ensemble section, the groove breaks down completely and shifts to a new funk groove built off a chunky hook.  This gives way to a bass solo (Dan Parker), which features another progressive ensemble build leading to a sudden drop off in texture.  The ensemble returns for a succession of biting punches that accentuate a series of drum fills (Keith Brooks), which ultimately brings back a brief statement of the original melody.

 “Stercorem pro Cerebro Habes (That is Definitely Food for Thought)”

“Stercorem” has a Latin groove cooked over a slow sizzle and a structure built around a compound ternary (ABA) form from classical music.  Both of the first two sections feature distinct melodies (the former starts in unison trombones, while the latter starts in unison saxes) that give way to solo sections built off their respective forms (Carl Kennedy, piano, and Luke Malewicz, trombone).  The final section is a fusion of these first two: though it uses the form and progression of the first section, the melodies from both sections are pitted against each other in a dense counterpoint.


Written by tenor saxophonist Vinny Starble, “#” features a constantly evolving texture supported by a mellow hip-hop groove.  The groove builds progressively over the intro as the ensemble slowly crescendos towards a peak.  Once the guitar solo enters (Chris Parsons), the ensemble builds towards another climax before dropping off and shifting to Starble’s tenor solo.  This extended solo section uses a single vamp, and it also includes its own rising/falling sense of tension.  The final build of the track occurs over the escalating drum solo (Keith Brooks) as members of the band enter progressively.  The opening vamp then returns, which ultimately tapers to a solo piano cadenza that reflects the fading tick of a clock.

“Cactus Fruit”

“Cactus Fruit” is a burning Bird blues that has an energetic drive that makes it an ideal opener for live sets.  After the initial full band blast, the drums fill into an angular soli for alto sax, tenor sax, and muted trumpets.  The rest of the band returns for the head of the tune, which pits all three horn sections against each other with layers of interwoven melodies.  This builds to a climax similar to the first four notes of the tune, which then gives way to the first solo section (Andrew Ecklund, trumpet).  Following this, the saxes take over with a virtuosic soli, culminating in the song’s first deviation from the 12-bar blues form.  Trombone pads and a New Orleans street beat introduce another section of melodic trade-offs between sax and trumpet pairings.  This deviation is short-lived, however, as another ensemble build leads back to the blues form and another solo (Adam Frank, tenor sax).  This then gives way to the final two choruses of the chart, and the resulting ensemble section is also its climax.  Though the blues form and short melodic motives are developed extensively, there is no repetition of extensive melodic material at any point throughout the tune.

“Honey Badger”

There is very little repetition of material in “Honey Badger,” as it is essentially a through-composed piece that explores a variety of styles and grooves.  After an ambiguous, winding intro, the music then shifts abruptly to a greasy speak-easy swing.  This section starts with a trombone solo (Phil Arquette), but ensemble backgrounds steadily build to a climax, at which point the groove changes yet again.  The bass lays down the foundation for a driving groove, and the texture evolves from a brass soli section to more contrapuntal one with weaving lines from the full ensemble.  A tenor solo (Adam Frank) is added over the same groove, but a new chord progression is introduced.  This then leads to yet another new section built over a similar groove that establishes unique melodic material played by the full ensemble.  What is unique about this section is that the bass line used generates many of the motives that develop throughout the piece.  After two more solos (James Baum, bari sax, Carl Kennedy, piano), another brief ensemble section gets interrupted by a short coda that uses the song’s intro.

“5 – e - & - a”

As its title implies, “5 – e - & - a” is an exercise in counting.  While it is a straight-ahead swing tune at its core, it also has measures of 5/4 meter sprinkled throughout that serve to thwart listeners’ expectations.  The melody follows a conventional AABA structure, and after a brief ensemble send-off modeled off the song’s intro, the first solo section emerges (Vinny Starble, tenor sax, and Luke Malewicz, trombone).  An ensemble soli section links the two solo sections, and unison brass and harmonized saxes trade off phrases that stumble in and out of 5/4 measures.  After the final two solos (Steve Duncan, trombone, and Chris Parsons, guitar), a climactic ensemble section gives way to a return of the song’s original melody.  This section starts much softer, but it brings back the original energy at the bridge.  It concludes with the full ensemble playing a short coda that borrows from the song’s intro.


This album closer blends numerous distinct styles together in what is another through-composed piece, and it treats the jazz band more like a symphonic ensemble (flute and clarinet are used extensively).  The intro features five chords over which the soprano sax (Tim Koelling) improvises a florid cadenza.  The docile R&B groove of the first section then kicks in, which also features an orchestrally conceived melody played by soprano sax, flute, flugelhorn, and trumpet with harmon mute.  Though this first section has two distinct phrases in an AABA form, the following solo section (featuring Dan Parker, bass, and Xavier Galdon, trombone) is played over a contrasting chord progression (borrowing the five chords from the intro) and form.  After a short return of both parts of the main melodic material, the music radically changes directions and veers into a brash and ominous symphonic march.  This second section is driven by a solo snare drum, and it also features thick brass writing.  Soprano sax solos over a stripped-down version of this groove with no chordal instruments, and this is interrupted by new material that is even more aggressive.  These interjections foreshadow the third and final section, which features a pummeling rock groove, symphonic writing for the winds, and even a dissonant circus waltz.  This builds to a point of climactic explosion in the brass, which tapers away to reveal a woodwind chorale coda taken from the beginning.

- John Dorhauer, Musical Director, Heisenberg Uncertainty Players, Adjunct Professor and Freelance Composer at Elmhurst College and Roosevelt University

With John’s road map to Emergency Postcards as my guide, I listened to the music on this CD with a new awareness and appreciation.

You have to work on being receptive to it to do justice to the talent these young Jazz musicians bring to playing it.

This is Jazz in the 21st century: these players hear the music differently. The music of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players takes from the Jazz tradition while at the same time synthesizing influences and inspirations from disparate, contemporary musical sources – something that Jazz has done throughout it existence.

But if you make the effort to “get into it” in much the same manner that you made the effort going from swing to bop to hard bop to modal Jazz and unusual time signatures to Free Jazz to Jazz-Rock fusion, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players will reward such efforts by moving your ears in different directions and by putting a big smile on your face.

The late, eminent Jazz author, Whitney Balliett once described Jazz as – “The Sound of Surprise.”

Trust me the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players’ Emergency Postcards CD is chock full of surprises.

As has always been the case, it takes a lot of courage, hard work and dedication to play Jazz. The music is rarely accompanied by a broad-based popular approval.

You play Jazz for the love of it and for the inner satisfaction that comes from achieving something that is not easily attainable.

Did I mention that it was hard to play this stuff?

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Players website can be located at The site includes order information for the Emergency Postcards CD, biographies of the various band members, videos and an itinerary of the band’s appearances.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Players on Emergency Postcards are –

John Dorhauer: Director
Tim Koelling: [Lead] Alto sax, Soprano sax
Kelley Dorhauer: Alto sax, Clarinet
Adam Frank: Tenor sax
Vinny Starble: Tenor sax, Flute
James Baum: Baritone sax
Luke Malewicz: [Lead] Trombone
Phil Arquette: Trombone
Xavier Galdon: Trombone
Steve Duncan: Bass Trombone
Tom Klein: [Lead] Trumpet
Andrew Ecklund: Trumpet
Jen Marshall: Trumpet
Jenni Szczerbinski: Trumpet
Chris Parsons: Guitar
Carl Kennedy: Piano
Dan Parker: Acoustic, Electric Bass
Keith Brooks: Drums

Here’s a video of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Players performing Cactus Fruit, which is a straight-ahead burner with a terrific sax soli that kicks in at 1:54 minutes, between a lively trumpet solo by Andrew Ecklund and a fine tenor solo by Adam Frank. Dan Parker on bass and Keith Brooks on drums really boot things along on this one.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

SUPERSAX – The Brilliant and Bravura

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

 “A typical arrangement by Supersax begins with the theme, followed by a reproduction of Parker's solo; both of these are accompanied by block harmonies, and the melody is doubled at the lower octave by the baritone saxophonist. After solos by one or more players the piece ends with a further block har­monization of the theme.”
-Thomas Owens, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, [p. 1172]

“… the harmonizations of Parker’s work are ingenious and effective.”
- Leonard Feather/Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, [p. 630]

“Playing on the Supersax arrangements is like trying to change your car’s fan belt while the engine is running.”
- A last-minute substitute recounting his experience to Gene Lees as quoted in Grover Sales, author of Jazz: America’s Classical Music [p. 147]

One of the most enthralling musical experiences of my life – then and now - has been listening to Jazz while being in the presence of Supersax

I say “then and now” because fortunately for me, I’ve been listening to various iterations of the group - which is made up of two alto saxophones, two tenors, a baritone, and either a trumpet or trombone soloist and a 3-piece rhythm section - from its first public performance as a unit in 1972 at Donte’s, a former Jazz club in North Hollywood, CA, to a later version of the group still headed-up by Med Flory that appeared at the LA Jazz Institute’s Groovin’ High: A Celebration of the Bebop Era, 2001.

The original solos by the late, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker’s are incredible both in conception and in execution, but the idea of reproducing these using five-part harmony as played by a standard sax section comprised of two alto saxes, two tenor and a baritone is sheer genius.

Beyond the idea there is the “getting there” part which must have been sheer torture, especially since much of Jazz phrasing escapes the dictums of written notation.

Put another way, it’s one thing to listen to Bird’s solos, it’s quite another thing to write them down, read them and play them in five-part harmony.

As described in the following materials abstracted from interviews with Med Flory, the alto saxophonist who is one of the group’s co-founders along with bassist Buddy Clark, insert notes by the distinguished Jazz critic, Leonard Feather and two articles excerpted from Downbeat magazine, the process of transcribing Bird’s work into written arrangements was an arduous, yet rewarding, labor of love.

It would seem that there were various starting and stopping points in the evolution of Supersax before it made it’s first public appearance in 1972, but when you hear the group perform, it was all worth waiting for.

Some hold the opinion that Supersax is a gimmick; I think it’s one of the greatest achievements in the history of Jazz, not only because it further memorializes one of the founders of modern Jazz – Charlie Parker – but also because it continues the Jazz traditions of reinvention, adaptation and assimilating aspects of the music into different contexts.

The group’s first recording was Supersax Plays Bird which was recorded in 1972/73 and won a Grammy Award for best performance by a Jazz ensemble in 1974. Not a bad way to start things off.

In his insert notes to this recording, Leonard Feather places Supersax in context, explains it significance and describes what’s going on in the music on the first recording.

“It is a rare occurrence in contemporary music when a new group is orga­nized whose premise, while uniquely fresh and exciting in execution, is based on a concept deeply rooted in the best traditions of the past. Supersax is just such an instance.

The premise is simple. Charlie Parker's solos, exactly as improvised while being committed to records, were of such inspired and awesome original­ity that they constituted de facto compositions in their own right.  

In other words, when Bird blew a series of choruses based on the chord pattern of some standard song, the product was a work of art worthy of being ex­tracted from its original context and expanded through the medium of orchestration.

There have been occasional isolated cases in which ad lib solos were developed in this manner.  Two of the earliest were the Bix Beiderbecke solo on Singin' The Blues and Bunny Berigan's contribution to the Tommy Dorsey version of Marie, both of which were transcribed off the records and voiced for trumpet sections.  Vocally, of course, the idea was picked up by a long line of singers, from Eddie Jefferson to King Pleasure to Lam­bert, Hendricks & Ross.

The unprecedented use of this precept as the basis for an entire instrumen­tal library grew out of Med Flory's association with the late Joe Maini, a widely respected alto player who died in 1964. ‘Joe was working in a big band I had around Los Angeles,’ Flory recalls, ‘when I wrote out the Parker solo on Star Eyes for a full saxophone section.  Then I did the intro­duction on Just Friends and Joe Maini, who had memorized Bird's solo note for note, gave me the lead line for the rest of the chart.   It seemed like a great idea, but nothing came of it, and after Joe's death it was more or less forgotten.  Then one night a year or so ago Buddy Clark, who'd played bass on that band with us, said 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have a whole book of Bird things like that, and play jobs with it?'

‘I said, “Fine, but who's going to write it?’”  Buddy said, 'Let me try it — just show me what to do.' I gave him a few hints on which way to go, and he started writing. I was busy at the time on a movie script, so I was too hung up to do many of the arrangements myself." (Flory has long led a triple life as TV actor, professional script writer and studio musician.)

A band coalesced to meet the formidable challenge of reading and sensi­tively interpreting these uncommonly demanding arrangements. After one or two changes the personnel heard on this album was arrived at, with Flory and Joe Lopes on alto saxes, Warne Marsh and Jay Migliori on ten­ors, Jack Nimitz on baritone, Conti Candoli on trumpet, Ronnell Bright on piano, Jake Hanna on drums and Clark on bass.  On Just Friends, Repeti­tion and Moose the Mooche, a seven-man brass section was added.

The common bond among these men that canceled out the diversity of their backgrounds was an intense love for and understanding of the contri­bution of Charlie Parker. Two of them actually worked with Bird briefly, Ronnell Bright in Chicago and Jay Migliori in Boston. The others came up in music just in time to be aware of the bop revolution, and of Parker as one of its two chief architects (along with Gillespie) while it was happening along 52nd Street and proliferating on records.

When after 11 months of patient wood-shedding [practicing], Supersax finally was presented to the public at Donte's, a question came to the minds of some listeners: does this concept constitute living in the past, or is it rather a case of relevance-through-renovation?

My own feeling immediately was that a new dimension had been added to these time-defying solo lines, as though a Picasso painting had become a sculpture, or an Old Master restored. In fact, just to hear, sectionalized and harmonized, the incredibly fast choruses based on the phenomenal Ko-Ko solo, is an experience such as Bird himself surely would have dug.

This, in effect, is how Charlie Parker would have sounded had he been able to play five saxophones at once, in harmony.

Med Flory wrote the arrangements for Be-Bop, Star Eyes, Moose the Mooche, and Just Friends; the other charts were all written by Buddy Clark. As Clark points out, "Most of the way we had the baritone sax double the melody line.   That was the simple, logical way to do it.   Everything moves so fast in a Bird solo that if you start breaking it up, it becomes kind of logy."

"Besides," added Med, "the lines themselves are as important and time­less as Mozart, so we didn't dare do anything that would tend to understate them." [Emphasis, mine]

The reed team is balanced so that Med's lead alto is the strongest voice, the baritone is next, and the three harmony parts are just about equal. Occasionally, on the more sustained passages, the voices were changed to add a little sonority (one instance is the second chorus of Star Eyes), but the group's basic sound is that of the two parallel melody lines an octave apart.

Since Charlie Parker made many of his definitive recordings before the age of the long play record, and because he usually accorded part of the limited solo space to his sidemen, in many cases there was not enough improvisational bird, on any one record of each tune, to constitute a full length Supersax arrangement. Buddy and Med resolved this in several tunes by using a composite of solos from two different versions of the same number.  Hot House, says Buddy, is ‘a combination of all kinds of Bird riffs from various records he made on these changes, either as Hot House or as What Is This Thing Called Love.’

Ko-Ko, possibly the greatest Bird masterpiece of all, is based on the original 1945 recording, just as Parker's Mood derives from the master take cut in 1948.  Similarly drawn from a single source is Just Friends, from the chart that became the most celebrated of the precedent-setting Parker-With-Strings date taped Nov. 30, 1949.

Even Mitch Miller's brief oboe solo following the first chorus was retained in this faithful translation by Med of the Jimmy Carroll arrangement. Oh, Lady Be Good! was taken in its en­tirety from a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert record cut in Los Angeles in 1946.

Regardless of the sources of their inspiration, most important of all is that steeped as they were in the subject, the Supersax musicians succeeded in retaining the spirit as well as the letter of Bird's one-to-a-century genius.

‘Just say,' Med Flory enjoined me as we discussed my notes for the al­bum, ‘that this was our affectionate tribute to a man we've respected and idolized through the years.’

The comment was almost redundant, for on every track in this extraordi­nary set of performances you will hear the overtones of a project conceived and written with patience and dedication, executed with hon­esty and warmth.  Supersax Plays Bird, as much as any album I have heard in recent years, is a thoroughgoing labor of love.”

In an interview Med Flory [MF] gave to Marc Myers for his Jazzwax blog [JW], he described the origins of Supersax as dating all the way back to 1948!

“JW: How did you come up with the idea for Supersax?

MF: What inspired me initially was Ralph Burns’ 1948 arrangement of the chorus to I’ve Got News for You. That was for Woody Herman’s  [pictured] band. It was a Shorty Rogers chart but Ralph wrote the chorus. It was a reworking of Dark Shadows, the song Charlie Parker had recorded a year earlier with Earl Coleman. Ralph had written out Parker's solo for the five saxes.

JW: When did the idea to transcribe Parker's solos first hit you?

MF: Around October 1956. [Saxophonists] Joe Maini, Charlie Kennedy, Richie Kamuca and Bill Hood came by my house.

Joe Maini had a record player and a bunch of Parker records. I gave him $50 for the player and the discs. Then I started transcribing a few things of Bird’s that were in the stack, like Star Eyes, Chasin’ the Bird and Just Friends. I wrote out those three charts from the records. Then later we played them down. We were just screwing around. One night in 1957 we were playing the Crescendo [a club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, CA] with the Dave Pell Octet. Buddy Clark was playing bass.
Afterward, we all went over to my pad. Buddy said, “Play that thing with the saxes—Just Friends.” When we were done, Dave said, “Boy wouldn’t it be great to have a whole book of those things.” Buddy said he’d take a shot. The trick was to keep everything within an octave. The line is everything. What Bird played is the thing. You don’t have to dress it up with voicings or anything.

JW: Were they hard to play?

MF: Bet your ass. You have a line that has to flow. All of the parts have to flow like the line. You can’t have trick things like jump lines. You have to find a way to keep everyone flowing tight and the right way. You have a bunch of choices to make on each chord. It’s like doing the New York Times crossword puzzle—except when you’re done you have something more than yesterday’s newspaper. You also want to keep what’s known in the music business as “a rub”—a half step in every chord. So, you want a B up against a C. It busts up the chord and keeps the line from becoming complacent. You have to have the rub between the second alto and first tenor or two tenors. Not the two altos.

JW: In the early 1970s, you and Buddy finally had the time to take the concept to the next level.

MF: Yeah. At first it was me and Perk [Bill Perkins] on alto saxophone, Pete Christlieb on tenor and Bill Hood on baritone. We started rehearsing. Hood left because he was entering his old folks stage and didn’t want to get involved in work. Christlieb burned a hole in his eardrum working on cars with high-pitched tools. So we got Joe Lopes on alto, Jay Migliori and Warne Marsh on tenors, and Jack Nimitz on baritone. We rehearsed for about a year at my place and at Buddy’s house. Joanie, my wife, got tired of us rehearsing all the time and called up the guy who owned Donte’s and pushed him to book us.

JW: What happened?

MF: We went into Donte's on a Monday night. We played Parker’s Mood, and after the first chorus, everyone in the place jumped up and went nuts. Mauri Lathower from Capitol Records happened to be there and was in heaven. He signed us right away for three albums.

JW: What did you learn about Charlie Parker during this experience? 

MF: Bird knew what he was doing. You can’t memorize that stuff and play it. Just when you think he’s going one way, he goes another. He was all about surprise. Not big ones. Little ones. Like the rub. I’d always try to play like him and never could. When you listen to him, you gotta know he’s from somewhere else.

JW: Did you listen to Parker as a kid?

MF: First time I heard him I was a senior in high school. I didn’t know it was him. I just heard some guy playing The Jumpin’ Blues with Jay McShann’s band. Then when I was in the army, I heard Bird’s first records as a leader. I said, “He’s OK but he’s not as good as that guy in McShann’s band” [laughs].”

A couple of years after Supersax’s first public appearance at Donte’s, Downbeat featured them on the cover of its November 21, 1974 edition which also contained this article by Ray Townley and Tim Hogan.

Supersax: The Genius of Bird X Five

© -  Downbeat Magazine/Ray Townley/Tim Hogan, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Here he was. articulating imperious mes­sages over the saxophone. Listening required real concentration Nothing glib came out of the horn. Every solo was played with high seriousness. The saxophone cried of love, rage, and black power. The elements heard in black music since the first rural bluesman had drifted to the urban ghettos had been contained and contemporized. There was nothing of Louis Armstrong's archaic minstrelsy or Lester's bittersweet romanti­cism. This was the real grit that Bird put down. An evening with Charlie Parker was not an entertainment. Listening to Charlie demanding, moving, often chilling ex­perience— like an evening with Lenny Bruce [satirical comedian]."
—Ross Russell, Bird Lives [Charterhouse]

"When I recorded with strings, some of my friends said. 'Oh. Bird is getting commercial. That wasn't it at all. I was looking for new ways of saying things musically. New sound combinations.

"Why. I asked for strings as far back as 1941 and then, years later, when I went with Norman, he okayed it. I liked Joe Lipman's fine arrangements on the second session and I think they didn't turn out badly. I'd like to do a session with five or six woodwinds, a harp, a choral group, and full rhythm section. Something on the line of Hindemith's Kleine Kammerrmusik. Not a copy or anything like that. I don't want ever to copy. But that sort of thing."
—Charlie (Bird) Parker. down beat (1/28/53)

"Charlie Parker is one of the few jazzmcn who can be said to have given dignity and meaning to the abused word ‘genius.’ It was his desire to devote his life to the translation of everything he saw and heard into terms of musical beauty. Though it was his inspiration, his soul and warmth that earned him an international reputation, and although he had lit­tle formal training, he was a man of amazing technical skill, a fast reader and a gifted compose-arranger. His best records were those he made with a small, informal combo, but he was proudest of the series of albums he made, starting in 1950, with a group featuring strings and woodwinds. (The first modern jazz soloist to record in this context, he led the way for dozens of others whose 'With Strings' albums followed his.)"
—Leonard Feather, The Encyclopedia of Jazz

“If you ever tune in the TV and see a saxophone-wielding cowboy race out of a Dodge City saloon blowing the middle chorus of Orni­thology, don't think something is wrong with your set and commence to bang it into submission. Most likely it'll be Med Flory -  scriptwriter, lead altoist and arranger for Supersax - confusing his roles in life.

Flory has appeared in over 150 rnajor TV  shows, most recently in the second Gunsmoke serial of the season where he played a lily-livered sheriff. The night before Thanksgiving he'll appear in a GE Theatre film with Patricia Neil called Things in Their Season, and he's got a shot in Police Woman coming up later in the year. At first glance, even at second or third, it's hard to believe that this Clint Eastwood-built and very Hollywood-ish styled man would have anything to do with the legend and legacy of the modern savior of Afro- American music, Charlie Bird Parker.

But Med Flory is currently involved in one of the most exciting Charlie Parker projects to date — transcribing Bird's famed alto solos note for note and then arranging them in harmony for a five-piece reed section.

Bassist Buddy Clark, Flory’s partner in his ingenious and eulogistic endeavor, strikes the opposite pose from that of the Flory nature boy: scholastic, demure, more the modern classicist than the modern be-hopper. But Clark is one of the busiest bassists on the hectic LA club and studio scenes. He plays the Merv Griffith Show, does frequent subbing for Ray Brown around town and just completed three weeks on the road with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. He also owns one of the finest collection of Bird choruses anywhere.


The underlying concept behind Supersax was aptly described by Leonard Feather: “The premise is simple. Charlie Parker's solos exactly as improvised while being committed to records, were of such inspired and awesome originality that they constituted de facto com­positions in their own right.  In other words, when Bird blew
A series of choruses based on the chord pattern of some standard song, the product was a work of art worthy of being extracted from its context and expanded through the medium of orchestration."

The birth of Supersax stretches back to 1962 when Med Flory was playing in a big band with Joe Maini and Buddy Clark. Flory was irked that the brass section of the band was getting almost all of the solo spotlight so he wrote out a trio of Parker choruses to give the sax section some prominence. Maini, on alto, led the section with his unique percussive attack, which helped make the Bird interpretations come off extremely heartfelt. But Maini’s untimely death caused the band to break up and the idea of doing a whole book of orchestrated Parker solos was scrapped until a decade later when bassist Clark was hanging out in Flory’s home.

As Clark and Flory listened to old tapes of Blues for Alice, Star Eyes and Just Friends, an idea sparked between them and they de­cided to create a band specifically based on doing Parker solos. Flory was as enthusiastic as Clark, but was involved with writing a film script and couldn't take the time to transcribe the charts necessary for such a project  Clark had time available so after a few quick lessons from Flory, he was  cranking out a chart a week.

After eleven months of rehearsal, the band included Jay Migliori (tenor). Joe Lopes (alto), Clark (bass), Flory (alto), Warne Marsh (tenor), Jack Nimitz (baritone), Conte Candoli (trumpet), Carl Fontana (trombone), Jake Hanna (drums), and Lou Levy (piano).

Flory’s wife, knowing how good the band was, called Donte's, a prominent Los Angeles nightclub, and asked them when they were going to book Supersax.

The following Sunday, in November of '72. they  went  into Donte's for their club debut and have been blowing hard and fast ever since. Their first album Supersax Plays Bird  (Capitol 11177) was released in May of ’73 and picked up a Grammy Award in the 1974 polls  as the Best Jazz Performance by a Group. Their second LP
(Salt Peanuts, Capitol 11271)  was released in March '74, continuing their high-spirited tribute to the sax genius. Recently, they returned to the studio to do number three, again a collection of Bird material only this time with string accompaniment. Trombonist Frank Rosolino has replaced Carl Fontana and drummer Harold Jones has replaced Jake Hanna.

Hogan: What exactly is it that you do to a Parker tune?

Clark: We take the lead line off; we take the melody and his part, what he plays on his solo. We don't do the rest of the guys on the record, just Bird's solo. And then we harmonize it four ways, sometimes five ways.

Flory: Buddy’s got just about every Parker chorus he can get a hold of And we look for the best one.

Clark: Sometimes the harmonics get a little hairy and you have to fig­ure out a different way to do it than you would ordinarily But the lines that he plays, as a general rule, aren't nearly that hard to get off unless the drums come in real strong or something like that. But Med's very good at that. For some reason, sax players can hear the notes another saxophonist plays even if he can only hear a little touch of it.

Flory: Recording techniques are such today that you're going to get better response out of the horn. A lot of times Bird recorded under conditions that were not too groovy So a lot of times in order to get the line he was playing you have to re-construct what he was think­ing. If you listen to some old Bird records, a lot of times a bomb that Max [Roach, drummer] would drop covered up a few of the notes. When you have five guys playing those notes that you reconstruct almost like archeology or something, [you figure] there had to be a few things he could do. What lays best on the horn is probably the way he went, which gives a saxophonist-composer an advantage over anybody else because he's got his horn to refer to.

A lot of those things in Bird Lives, for example, on Lester Leaps In. there's a guy over there yelling. "Hoy” every fifth beat. He's cutting right into the line so you've gotta take your best shot and harmonize it the best way you can hoping you're doing it justice.

Clark: He had a lot of pat phrases and licks that he would play and he had a way  of shuffling them  around like a  computer. One time he'd start on the downbeat of a bar, the next time he'd start on the fourth beat  It didn't really matter to him. Sometimes, when you look at that stuff on paper, it seems really funny.

Flory: Sometimes he'd just jaywalk across the chord. Like the chord would be going one way and he'd play something that was "out there," that there's no way you can make it fit that chord So you have to make up your mind which way you're gonna go—whether you're voice everything that he's doing, in terms of the chord that's really there, or go with him and meet him over there some place. Usually that's the best way to go.

You've got alto. alto, tenor, tenor and the bari. So you've gout keep all the lines going for the other alto and the two tenors. The baritone's gonna be the same as the lead alto in most cases, only it comes out an octave lower. In order to make a chord fit, a writer for saxophone will often cross voices. They'll give this guy that guy's note, and that guy this guy's note, in order to keep from playing dou­ble notes.

But you can't do that because you can hear it every time. If a guy plays the same note twice, going over the bar line while everybody else is moving, BANG, you're gonna hear it right there in the middle.

So you have to figure out ways for their lines to move diatonically in the same way as the lead line. And that takes a lot of work. It's like a game of chess, figuring out the next move. You have to think ahead three or four moves. In this, you've gotta think seven or eight notes ahead in order to figure out where you're gonna come out in order to keep that line going.

It it's a long run and gonna keep going, you gotta figure out where you're gonna break, so there'll be the minimum break in there. It's really wild. And for that reason, this sax section doesn't sound like any other sax section around. We try to keep a half-step in the chord at all times If you keep writing without a half-step in there, you're gonna build up overtones. You're gonna get that traditional tubby sound in the sax section. And that's, awful.

I've played in sax sections all my life, and when you play a note you know what chord it is and you know how it's gonna sound because everybody does it the same way. It's like those Mickey Mouse chords and it's a drag Not just the chord but the way it sounds

But if you've got those half-steps in there, you're breaking up the overtones. Then your top tines will come out strong. You've got a real sizzler without breaking your head to do it. or getting a mouthpiece with a gearshift on it.

Hogan: How loyal do you stay to the original Parker chart?

Clark: Well. I'll give you an example. When we have a 32nd-note run I have to treat each 32nd-note as if it were a whole-note and was gonna be heard for four beats, even though it goes by in the twinkling of an eye. But it you have that kind of loyally to getting the right har­monies going on practically every note, sometimes you have to cheat in order to get to the next important note. But if you have that kind of loyalty [to the original],  it comes out better in the long run.

I tried to broaden out a little bit after I got my feel wet and I brought in some stuff where I'd open the chords up wider than they had been. It just didn't come of. But sometimes for special effect I'd do it, like there're a couple of places on Ko-Ko where it's spiced up a little. It's kind of effective but it's strange, spooky kind of chord. It isn’t really a flat-out big band chord. It's a chord based on intervals rather than a triad.

Townley: How did uou manage to get the five members of the reed section to stay rhythmically in tempo with one another? Some of the choruses arc taken at lightning pace.

Flory: It was murder in the beginning It really was murder I knew what I wanted it to sound like, more or less, because I always dug Bird But it's hard when you get good saxophonists. Everybody's got his own idea about how k ought to go.

 I like a real percussive style of lead, daylight in between the notes wherever possible, so it’s not just a steady flow of sound and tongued notes. There are so many differ­ent ways of attacking notes — with your tongue on the reed, popping, and sliding. To get all those things to work out. we just had to keep playing together for a long, long time. Now, when we bring up a new chart, the writing is a little more adaptable to what we're doing Now the performance the first time through is better than it used to be after a whole rehearsal or an entire week.

Everybody had to learn to sublimate what he wanted to do personally, including myself.

Townley: You were just speaking about daylight between the notes rather than just one continuous sound. Is that what makes your section different from most of the other reed sections in existence? Most other sections are modeled on the pre-Bird vibrato sound ol Johnny Hodges.

Flory: Well, take the reed sections before Parker, like the ones in Lunceford's band and Duke's   They would spread out the voicings and go for that big sound with the baritone down on the bottom, then one of the tenors a fifth above that, and so forth. That gives you more of a full  sound rather than a real jazz sound.

The line is so important in what Bird does that you have to concentrate on that line. That's why I started by doubling the baritones and the altos.  I got a sound in which you're never going the line he played.

 I never was much ot a Johnny Hodges fan myself.  I liked Benny Carter rather than Hodges. But once I heard Bird I knew that was the way it was suppose to be, and you can't sound like Bird playing like Johnny Hodges or Marshall Royal or any of those guys. They come from an entirely different school. It would he a mixed bag, you know, what with that kind of carrier sound they get where they float the sound and get that vibrato.  And the vibrato stays pretty much the same.

It's different with Bird. Sometimes he played with no vibrato at all for a few notes and then he'd play with a nice warm vibrato. It depended on the phrase he was doing and where he got it  from because he thought in phrases from all over the place. He might quote from the opera, from some Kansas City joint or whatever.

Hogan: What’s the most difficult part of doing Parker materials?

Flory: Playing it [laughter].

Clark: All the songs are tough when you first get 'em. Especially the ballads because the rests are almost harder to read than the notes. You have got to figure out where not to play. But once we get the ballads , it’s, in fact, more together than the up things. And more effective with the audience.

Y'know what’s weird is that the audience flips out more when we play ballads then when we play something that's absolutely impossible to play.

Flory: Over half the people who come out to see us play are chicks. You can't just play “out” music and get it going. Parker played pretty. He played jazz that was hard and everything like that, but it had romance in it.

Whereas, you go beyond that, like Trane,  it ain't the most romantic music in the world. It's very esoteric and it doesn't cover as much ground as Bird does. A woman can sit and listen to Bird and dig it from a romantic point of view.

You can play Star Eyes or My Old Flame or Embraceable You or Lover Man, and even though it's not the melody that they're used to hearing, they can dig it. And the kids are starting to dig it because kids today are hip. They’ve got a better time feel than kids when I was young.

Townley: How come Supersax sounds so much smoother than Parker ever did, even though youre playing the same notes?

Flory: Naturally it’s gotta sound a lot different because what we are doing is pointing up the harmonics that Bud was thinking or the harmonies you hope he was thinking.   You're putting a structure along with that line, so you're essentially filling in a lot of the gaps. It’s almost like going to school on him. Essentially, you're giving a harmony to the melody lines he played. So it’s a different  thing.

Townley: Is Supersax a group that seeks to entertain its audience? It seems Bird wasn't really interested in doing that.

Flory: Well listening to Bud was not like listening someone like listening to Earl Bostic or someone like that who played for the effect it would have on the audience, you dig. Or Louie Jordan would he a better example. A great, groovy jazz  player, he  played to get people stomping.

Or Hamp — Hamp's hand, when he played he knew what he could do to those people to get them jumping up and down. He wanted to enter­tain them. But Bird, he was so inside, so esoteric. I'm sure he didn't give a rat's ass what the people thought of what he was doing.  He was just playing and you had to get with him instead of him putting you in a certain frame of mind.

Townley: What about Supersax?

Flory: Oh. it's kind of a — there's a lot of jive going on in the band and everybody is having fun playing, you know. Certainly  there's an element entertainment. I  like to keep things lose up there be­tween tunes so that it doesn't fall into a classroom thing.                    I think that's what helped kill jazz so horribly after World War II anyway, guys turning their backs on the audience and guys sometimes spending a whole set figuring out what they were going to play next.  It was really a drag.”

© -  Downbeat Magazine/Harvey Siders, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The always candid and insightful Harvey Siders was in attendance the night Supersax premiered at Donte’s and he published this review of the event in Downbeat.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Super Sax Plays Bird
V. xl/No. 3, 1973.
Donte’s. North Hollywood, CA. Personnel: Med Flory, Bill Perkins, alto sax; Warne Marsh, Jay Migliori, tenor sax; Jack Nimitz, baritone sax; Ronnell Bright, piano; Buddy Clark, bass; Jake Hanna, drums.

It had to he one of Donte's most intriguing marquees: Supersax Plays Bird. I can't imagine the reaction of people driving by; they probably thought it was a new rock group. But the musicians in this studio-oriented community knew what was happening. The 11-month experiment by Med Flory and Buddy Clark was finally getting it’s first public exposure.

Shortly before Christmas 1971, Med Flory and Buddy Clark began transcribing Charlie Parker solos from their collection of records and tapes and arranging them for a sax section. At the same time, they began to form their nucleus of Bird watchers, weeding out those who could not make rehearsals or did not share their unila­teral devotion to one musical deity.

What took shape was a dream sax section consisting of Flory. Perkins. Marsh. Migliori. and  Nimitz.  Conte Candoli's trumpet was added for variation in solo color   With Clark and Hanna anchoring the rhythm section, only piano was a question mark On the night of the review. Ronnell Bright answered more than ably.

With the overflow crowd in an anticipatory mood. Clark kicked off a slow blues, Parker’s Mood. Not just slow, but tantalizing. And then it happened: Supersax entered, and with it. the fruition of all those rehearsals, all that transcribing, all that worrying and planning. Five Charlie Parkers suddenly came alive - not in timbre or style, but in spirit. Five saxes, tightly voiced, faithfully re-created the famous Bird with every nuance intact.

It’s difficult to tell whether everyone in Dome's aviary was a Bird fan. but it wasn't difficult to measure the response. What they heard was musically and historically grat­ifying, and it svumg' And without taking any jazz away from the excitement, it was a tour de force.

For the first improvised chorus, Conte offered an inventive, soulful solo. The Bright followed with a short, meaningful comment. The saxes took it out, and from the applause that followed, a mutual love affair had been initiated.

Number two was The Bird, with the same format: Sax soli, Candoli, then Bright. This time, an individual statement was made; Warne Marsh, with a characteristic tenor lag that made you (at least it made me) want to “goose him” to catch up.

As for the saxes, collectively, the blend was better because the voicings lay in a higher register than in Parker’s Mood. The tricky figures of the old Parker riff were executed flawlessly – all harmony, no unison – and the spectre of Bird loomed larger than life. Somehow it transcended the five “sax Friends” bursting their guts. What resulted was a new and greater (if possible) respect for the original architect who conceived these incredible lines and shapes.

A healthier respect for the super saxophonists were gained on the ballad My Old Flame. There’s nothing like a slow tempo to separate the men from the boys in a section. Well, as we all knew from the outset, there were no weak links here. They not only phrased as one; they breathed as one.

They had little chance to breathe in the next one. Donna Lee, based on the changes of Indiana - a way-up swinger that offered some outstanding section work pushed by the high-powered percussiveness of Hanna.

The success of that chart led Flory (whose witty low-key introductions provided much needed relief to the intensity of the playing) to remark: “Let’s do the next one before the pill wears off.”

The next one was Ko-Ko, the impossible head built on Cherokee changes. How all five came through that ordeal unscathed will never be known. Yet all the intricacies were negotiated; all of the sudden twists and turns, soft shoulders and dangerous curves were mastered; not a beat was skipped.

Candoli and Bright contributed excellent solos, but the solo honors belonged to Migliori and Marsh for their long, exciting tenor dialogue. Ideas were not merely exchanged, they were imitated and elaborated upon. The end of one statement often became a launching pad for the next. Visually it was an equally remarkable duet: Migliori never opens his eyes when he solos; Marsh never closes his. But both had their ears wide open.

So did the audience. Their wild applause at the end of the treacherous out chorus was loud enough and long enough to thank not only the co-leaders who fashioned the sixteen charts in the book and those “saxidermists” who lavished time and talent on stuffing The Bird, but Parker himself, whose genius was seen in a new, diffused light.

Between sets, Flory confessed to me that the whole project was a “labor of insanity.” But I’m certain he didn’t really mean it. The reception was too rewarding. If he and Buddy Clark had resurrected the essence of Charlie Parker, Supersax represented the quint-essence.”

The following video features Supersax performing Parker's Mood. Conte Candoli takes the trumper solo.

I still shake my head in disbelief every time I hear Supersax perform. I got to witness a miracle in my lifetime, or, at least, to hear one.