George Lewis talks Charlie Parker

George Lewis
Homage to Charles Parker
Black Saint : 1979

GL, trombone, electronics; Douglas Ewart, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, cymbals; Anthony Davis, piano; Richard Teitelbaum, polymoog, multimoog & micromoog synthesizers.

We’re dedicating the next two weeks to providing an inside view of the music of the remarkable composer, trombonist, electronic musician, and professor George Lewis.

As a young man, Lewis grabbed the attention of the jazz world in the mid 1970s with his virtuosic and inventive trombone playing for Anthony Braxton. He went on to record a number of albums that combined his interests in jazz, classical composition, and electronics. He’s the recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant and author of the essential book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.

We’re focusing this post on his classic album Homage to Charles Parker, which employs jazz, electronics, and improvisation in startling ways to create a stirring tribute to one of music’s most iconic figures. The Penguin Guide to Jazz awarded this album five stars and one of its coveted crowns, designated it one of the “Essential Jazz Records.” Released on the small Italian label Black Saint and unavailable for years, the album hasn’t attracted the wide audience it deserves.

George Lewis recently revisited and performed “Homage to Charles Parker” at the Kitchen. He generously took the time to answer our questions and reflect back on this important recording.


What inspired the composition of the title piece and “Blues”?

“Blues” used a notation similar to “Monads” from the Shadowgraph recording; if you look at a 1950s Morton Feldman graph piece, you basically know what the score looked like—squares representing high, middle, and low register, and the odd specification of a dominant seventh chord at about the place one would expect in a blues progression.  It was the simplest possible blues; given the minimalist aims of the piece, using snazzy chord substitutions would have sounded ridiculous. It was interesting, though, that this kind of notation could be used to represent a 12-bar blues of sorts, but that piece was harder to play than “Homage”—I got lucky with the people on the recording—Anthony Davis, Richard Teitelbaum, Douglas Ewart—or maybe not, since if you want to get lucky in music, these are the people you want around.

“Blues” is directly depictive; “Homage” isn’t. As I recall, the ethos of “Homage” was influenced by an LP liner note I read in which Miles Davis answered criticism about not playing Duke Ellington’s music on an Ellington tribute concert by saying that performing at the highest level was the best homage one could give.

“Homage” was premiered in 1978 at the AACM Summerfest at the University of Chicago. The performers were Douglas Ewart, alto saxophone and percussion; Rrata Christine Jones (now Christina Jones), dance; and George Lewis, electronics, electric organ, and trombone. The piece doesn’t really have a score as such, although there is a set of defined events, a timeline, and a sonic and even a visual iconography, centered on two major events—Charlie Parker’s life, and his afterlife.

If anything, the “afterlife,” “floating” section of “Homage” is less influenced by Charlie Parker than by something like John Coltrane’s “Peace on Earth,” but without the ecstatic thing; many had tried and failed to get that going. The “life” section reminded me of Stockhausen’s “Mikrophonie” pieces.

Can you recount some of the circumstances around the recording of the Homage to Charles Parker album?  How did you select the performers?

During my short-lived career as a jazz bandleader, I was touring with something called, for lack of imagination, the “George Lewis Quartet”:  Richard, Douglas, me, and Anthony Davis, people who were part of our experimental music scene. In 1979, we had concerts in Europe, and a truly magical performance of “Homage” took place with this quartet and flutist Wallace McMillan at the Moers Festival in Germany in 1979. The rain stopped, the clouds parted, and the sun came out when the “afterlife” section was played.

We performed later that year in Italy as part of the “Festival Musica Oggi,” sponsored by some very cool students at the University of Padua—Massimo de Carlo, who is now the owner of an innovative art gallery, and Luciano Linzi, who later was running the Casa del Jazz in Rome until recently—this was a huge park built by a Mafia person that got confiscated when he was jailed, and the park was rededicated to jazz. Only in Rome, I think.

Giacomo Pelliciotti, the founder of Black Saint Records, had recorded two of my previous albums, and decided to record the quartet. I was a minor commodity then, but trombonists don’t really get to be jazz stars. I don’t think Giacomo knew that, or maybe he didn’t care. Anyway, he kept asking about when I would record a regular jazz record under my own name. I guess it never happened, and he didn’t press the point. I was always on the margins of all that anyway.


Why did you decide to perform Homage to Charles Parker recently?

Nick Hallett at the Kitchen was nice enough to include me in the remembrance of the 1980 “Aluminum Nights” festival they were planning. I helped to curate that festival, which was kind of an early foray into the multi-genre or post-genre thing that people seem to take for granted now. I didn’t meet Mick Jagger, though—“everyone” seems to remember that.

I could have tried to recreate the piece that I performed on that festival, “Atlantic” for four trombones with electronic processing, but (a) the score is buried in my basement in San Diego (b) finding four trombonists who could do the circular breathing and all that might be difficult (c) I’m not playing the trombone much now anyway. “Homage” was actually performed at the Kitchen in 1979, so that seemed to fit the notion of revisiting the era.


Did you approach this latest performance of Homage to Charles Parker in any different way? Did you reconceptualize any parts of the music?

First of all, I found myself having to recreate the timeline from the recording, which was interesting; I hadn’t realized how slow the chord changes between A major and G major were coming—about thirty seconds between chords. In fact there are only two chords in the entire piece, which is partly an influence of minimalism and partially a nod to my poor abilities at the piano, since on the original Chicago performance I played electric organ.

There was also a deliberate decision made to work with different people this time around—Richard and me, but also Matana Roberts, Reggie Nicholson, and Amina Claudine Myers—not only for logistical reasons, but also to encourage interpretation rather than simple re-creation. On the other hand, I did send everyone an MP3 of the recording for orientation purposes.

The performance had to be a bit longer than the recording. Vinyl albums were 17-18 minutes per side, and we needed about 30-35 minutes. So I added extra improvisations for Amina, Reggie, and Matana at the beginning of the piece, although the goal of the retooled first section was still to represent the turbulence of Bird’s life and his sudden death.

On the recording and in the old performances, Douglas Ewart played percussion at the beginning. I was using piezos attached to a pair of cymbals, and that signal was passed through various Electro-Harmonix flangers, phasers, and noisy analog delays, with a mixer of sorts. Live electronics after the fashion of Gordon Mumma or David Tudor; maybe my mixer was homemade. This part represented Charlie Parker’s life.

For the new version I air-miked various percussion instruments brought by Reggie Nicholson—tam-tams, gongs, cymbals, a tom-tom. At first I thought about using Ableton Live for the sonic transformations, but I decided to use a multi-channel spatialization/sound transformation system that Damon Holzborn made for another piece of mine from 2010, Les Exercices Spirituels, a totally notated piece that has just come out on Tzadik. At the Kitchen, I could send the transformed percussion and saxophone sounds around the audience, which I think people found pretty cool. Couldn’t do it quite that way in the 70s.

For the afterlife section, I had contemplating doing the synthesizer parts myself using Ableton Live, but having Richard there was a much better idea, since he knew just how to create the ambient wispy electronic stuff that I was never able to do even in the old analog era. I figured that the string sounds were generic enough so that we could use his Kurzweil, but in fact the old Polymoog sound hadn’t made the transition to the digital era, so we decided to sample the original recording with Richard’s playing to get the right sound, and Richard played that in the performance. I had to clean it up to use it, since this was the old days—the string sound was at a low recorded level and there was a lot of noise.

On the recording, Douglas Ewart basically created Bird’s afterlife—you know, “Bird is free.” Matana played splendidly in that spirit. Basically no one has to do very much in the piece, and like Reggie, she managed to say a lot with pure sound. By the way, at the premiere, Christina Jones danced the afterlife of Parker. I decided not to try to redo that part—maybe an opportunity was missed there.

The recording featured a piano solo and then a trombone solo. Amina did a fantastic solo in the spirit of the piece, but I didn’t feel that I could go back to the old ways any more, so I played another kind of trombone solo instead, electronically modified and spatially transformed. It was OK.


Was the recording process itself memorable in any way?

Hard to remember all that now; that was 30 years ago. Maybe we did two takes, but that’s all I remember.

I have to say that I never liked the cover painting, not least because it was taken from a weird wall mural in midtown New York. A painting by someone like Jeff Donaldson would have been amazing.  However, I did like the back cover with the photo of Charlie Parker as a boy. Some people didn’t read the caption and thought it was a photo of me.  We don’t all look alike, do we?

There is a recent vogue in rock circles for performing classic albums in their entirety. Were you at all aware of this trend?

No, I wasn’t aware of that. Is Homage to Charles Parker a classic album?

I remember my students at UCSD calling Duck and Cover a classic album, live in East Berlin, with me, Heiner Goebbels, Chris Cutler, Fred Frith, Dagmar Krause, and Alfred 23 Harth. One of them sent me a copy. Classic or not, I thought it sounded great. For that one Heiner did make a text score, which I think is on the cardboard album sleeve. That wouldn’t be enough to re-perform it, though; time, place, and situation are everything.

Other people thought News for Lulu with Zorn and Frisell was a classic album. I also really liked Yankees, with Zorn and Derek Bailey; the cover uses a visual strategy analogous to Homage’s sonic strategy.

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’ll talk to George about his excellent new album SoundDance with Muhal Richard Abrams, improvisation, the AACM, and his future projects.

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