Photo by Diane Zhou, courtesy of the artist.
Saxophonist Kevin Sun deftly navigates jazz’s knife edge of tradition and novelty. While Sun’s compositions embrace rhythmic and harmonic abstractions, his playing is rooted in the deep study of saxophone elders from Lester Young to Stan Getz to Mark Turner. Sun’s newest project straddles that divide between new and old, a Charlie Parker exploration called <3 Bird (Endectomorph), released just in time for Parker’s 101st birthday. In “Greenlit,” below, Parker’s tune “Confirmation” is shot through a rhythmic prism, exaggerating the tune’s already-slippery twists and turns.
This Thursday, August 19, Sun returns to The Jazz Gallery stage to celebrate the release of <3 Bird, alongside the album’s full-band lineup: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, guitarist Max Light, pianist Christian Li, bassist Walter Stinson, and drummer Matt Honor. We caught up with Sun to discuss the project’s origins and his experience listening to Parker’s complete recorded output.
The Jazz Gallery: I was going back and reading your Parker blog posts from the past year-plus. When you started writing these in late spring 2020, was this something you had always planned on doing for Parker’s centennial, or was this something you went toward in that early pandemic headspace?
Kevin Sun: It wasn’t really planned. I would say more that I gravitated toward it and found myself sucked in when I was really isolated for a while, like everyone else. In the back of my mind I knew that Charlie Parker was very important to me and I wanted to do something for the centennial, but, I didn’t have anything really in mind.
It just slowly grew, and it kept growing; the more I listened, I had more and more questions come up. Some of them I haven’t really found a satisfactory answer, and I’m not sure there is one. I have like three or four legal pads just filled with tons of notes: questions, listening notes, reading notes. It was something that gave me life and pretty much kept me going.
TJG: Since you already knew Parker’s playing well, what were some of the things that appeared differently in your listening this time? What were those questions?
KS: The biggest thing that occurred to me was to get my hands on everything that is known to exist, and there’s this amazing resource—a website made by Peter Losin that has a database and a search function, so that was super helpful for me in terms of organizing the discography as I was acquiring recordings. I tried to listen to everything, and it comes out to about 72 hours. Based on what I have, I’m missing a handful of dates—like three or four—but I pretty much have everything. From there, I extracted all of the solos; that’s close to about 24 hours, which is more manageable. If you want to listen to 3 hours a day, you can do it in a little over a week.
The first thing that struck me is consistency. Pretty much in every recording, except for one or two, he’s just him. It’s all there—the time, the feel, the phrasing. It’s so clear and distinct, and it never feels like he’s overly accommodating. He always presents himself and makes his own voice fit in the context of how the music’s happening. That just blew me away, because it’s pretty much his whole recorded career. It’s kind of shocking because there are so few musicians who are on that level of consistency. Other people I’ve studied a lot—like Joe Henderson or Coltrane—have good nights and less good nights. Parker just never had an off night from what I can tell recording-wise, and that’s pretty freakish.
TJG: That consistency brings up interesting questions about how Parker’s improviser-brain worked, especially compared to people like Henderson and Coltrane.
KS: I thought about that a lot. One of the questions that brought up for me is, what did he practice? How did he practice to reach such a level of consistency that was apparent from a young age? Pretty much from his early 20s, we have recordings where he’s playing with bands and playing bebop.
It seems to me that he must have been very clear to himself, very decisive in terms of choosing what melodic material he thought was the strongest, and wanting to use that again and again and again. That also means that he had to decide not to do all of this other stuff that he was aware of. Other people might play that way, but he decided not to play it because it doesn’t speak to him in a profound way like the material he devised.
That second element seems really hard to do for me. It’s not just discipline, but sacrifice, because you’re choosing to cut out other things that might be fun to flirt with. I feel like for young musicians today—myself included—a big part of the learning process is trying a lot of things, and some things stick and other things don’t. Bird somehow just accelerated the process, or he just knew within himself from an early age what he wanted to say.