OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Q&A with Ronan Guilfoyle on Charlie Parker’s centenary
August 29th marks a significant centenary. It will be 100 years since the birth of jazz icon Charlie Parker. It also marks 20 years since IMC released Ronan Guilfoyle's BIRD album. Under the moniker Lingua Franca, that album was a celebration of the iconic music associated with Charlie Parker. It featured music written by him, jazz standards made famous by him and also original music dedicated to him. To celebrate this important centenary, an equally stellar cast of Irish musicians will perform the BIRD album live in its entirety for an online concert on Saturday 29th August 8pm.
Ahead of the performance we spoke to bassist, composer, and educator Ronan Guilfoyle about the long shadow Parker has cast over jazz, his personal experiences with Parker's music, and the original creation of BIRD 20 years ago.
Tickets on sale now HERE, please join us on Saturday 29th August, 8pm to celebrate this great music.
Q. Do you have a memory of your first encounters with Charlie Parker’s music?
I do and I don’t. I do in the sense that I was raised listening to Charlie Parker’s music. My father was a huge jazz fan, and had a lot of records in the house. Two of them were by Charlie Parker - one was the Charlie Parker Memorial album, I guess released after the had died, and it contained a kind of collection of stuff by Parker which my father played, and pointed out certain things to me - particular tracks he liked.
The other one was called Bird and Diz. It was recorded in Birdland in 1952 I think, it’s a radio broadcast, and that is just incredible. I still listen to it, and I know every note of it because I’ve heard it ever since I can remember, I’ve been listening to it for over 60 years now at this point.
So I remember growing up with Parker, but I don’t remember the first time I ever heard one of his recordings, because it goes way back into my childhood. So at some point I heard it for the first time, but the point is I suppose I spent my childhood hearing Parker’s music.
Q. How do you think Parker’s music has influenced jazz in Ireland (or Europe), and you as a musician?
Well, you have to remember that Parker really is inescapable for any jazz musician of any nationality, any part of the world of any time. He revolutionised music - along with others like Dizzy Gillespie and the bebop movement in general - but him in particular.
You really have to look at jazz in terms of pre-Charlie Parker and post-Charlie Parker, in the sense that the bebop movement is the start of the modern era. It’s a bit like in classical music you can say that after Bach you’re in the modern era and before Bach you’re in the early music era.
Then in jazz, before Parker you’re in the swing era, and before that the traditional jazz era of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans and all that. But after Parker - a huge amount of the vocabulary that we know, that everybody plays and everybody learns was created by him and his colleagues in that time, in a short period of 5 or 6 years. They revolutionised music. It’s hard to understand that, just how revolutionary it was from this distance, but it really was.
They established a whole new vocabulary of music, and older players became kind of - not obsolete, that’s not the right expression - but suddenly, from being giants on their own terms, they found they couldn’t play this new music because it was a new language. And some of them got annoyed at this, I mean, Louis Armstrong at one point described it as being ‘Chinese music’. So that’ll give you an idea of how big a challenge it was to people, even giants like Armstrong to hear guys playing like this.
They were a bunch of young men - Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach - coming up with a new language that changed the world of music. And it didn’t just change the world of jazz, it changed the world of music. They brought in a way of playing, and a way of being, and even a kind of persona that hadn’t existed before they came along.
So it was hugely influential in Ireland, but then again it was hugely influential in Japan, in America, and in Europe of course. Everyone wanted to play like that. That became the common language - bebop and after bebop became the common language. Incredibly influential.
Q. Could you tell us a bit about the inception of the BIRD album and its original creation?
I wanted to make an album dedicated to Charlie Parker, whom I’d been listening to an awful lot. I do this every now and again - of course his music is always present for me, but every now and again I’ll go on a bit of a binge - kind of like a Netflix binge, I’ll go on a Charlie Parker binge listening thing. And I think it was after one of those I decided I’d really like to make an album in tribute to him.
But I decided I didn’t want to make an album that would try to sound like him, because for a start you’re never going to sound good if you do that. If you try and beat Charlie Parker, there’s only going to be one winner, and it’s not you.
So what I decided I would like to do was to make an album that would be a tribute to him, and the music would be rearranged by me, sometimes more rearranged than others. And it would be music that was either dedicated to him, made famous by him, or written by him. I also wrote one piece of my own dedicated to him on that. So that’s how it came about, I had a binge listening session and decided I would really like to record a tribute to him that at the same time would be my point of view on what his music meant to me, rather than trying to sound like him.
Q. What elements of Parker’s playing/style do you think create such a distinctive voice and influence on other musicians?
This is a huge question - and it can get quite technical - it’s a huge answer if I were to go into it. Rhythmically particularly, he changed the world of playing. His playing was influenced definitely by Lester Young before him, and harmonically probably by Art Tatum. But the sheer speed that he could play at and the virtuosity was unprecedented. Suddenly people had to up their game in terms of the technical playing of the instrument. And then he had this other harmonic language that he developed himself, and an ability to move around the harmony in a way that had never been done before - this is huge as well. So they’re the biggest things - the rhythmic way of playing, the virtuosity of the playing and the harmonic language.
So melody, harmony and rhythm, how about that for being all-encompassing in terms of influence!
Q. Looking back from a 20-year distance at the BIRD album, how do you feel about the music now?
I’m very happy with it actually - I think we did a really great job in terms of the playing. What happened was, we did a Music Network tour, so we toured the music for, I think 10 gigs maybe. It was amazing in those days, especially in these days when we have no gigs! A 10 gig tour I think it was, so by the time we got to the studio we were very comfortable with the material, and we did I think a fine job of representing where we were with the music at that point. It was very nicely recorded in Paul Ashe Browne’s late lamented studio in Ringsend. It was really fun to do, and of course working with such great musicians - Rick Peckham, Julian Arguelles, and Tom Rainey - a real dream team for me at that time. It was very special.
So when I listen back to it - I’ve just listened back to it again recently once I knew we were going to do this - I have to say it still sounds fresh to me 20 years later, and it’s one of the things I’m most happy with in terms of my own recordings.
Remember to get your tickets HERE to hear 3G & Ronan Guilfoyle perform the complete BIRD album
Saturday 29th August, 8pm
Online event, recorded specially at Arthur's Blues & Jazz Club for you to enjoy safely from home.
To learn more about Charlie Parker, you can also listen to our Wax On podcast on his music, presented by Cormac Larkin HERE.