Despite some recent news, Canadian jazz legend PJ Perry is in a pretty wonderful space these days.
Busy recording, busy performing, still accepting awards and accolades — including a 2016 Order of Canada induction — the 76-year-old saxophonist says simply and believably at the end of our conversation: “It’s been a lovely time of life for me. I’m at peace.”
That news, however, is of the passing of longtime friend Tommy Banks, who died in late January. It was mere week before we chatted to promote Perry’s Saturday, Feb. 10 performance at the Bella Concert Hall of Charlie Parker’s classic 1950 recording Charlie Parker With Strings (the concert will feature Perry and a 16-piece chamber orchestra with a jazz rhythm section).
Still, on this morning the Calgary-born, Edmonton-based artist is very much the picture of composure, accepting offers of sympathy with the kind of grace you’d expect from someone who really is very much at peace in his life.
Q: My condolences. It must be tough right now.
A: Yeah, it is, but we had a lot of very, very good years together. Although he’s going to leave a huge void in the whole country and in my heart, I’m gonna be OK with it. I’m 76 years old now, we’re all in the waiting room, and I’ve been through all this many times in my life as well. I’ve seen a lot of death.
Q: I guess one of the heartening things about it is hearing all of the tributes and seeing exactly what he meant to everybody.
A: Absolutely. He was very, very unique human being, too — loyal and a brilliant musician. None finer, none more gifted. And a loyal friend. I got very close to him on many levels, although he was very personal, he was a very private person, but I think I got as close to him as anybody did …
The one thing that I’m most gratified with is the fact that we were able to do that lovely recording together (2014’s Old Friends). That was very special to me. Sitting in the studio for a couple of days, with just the two of us, it was very intimate and a wonderful legacy for our lives together. A recording I’m very proud of. I’m happy that happened. We had tried to do this in previous years, and the stars weren’t aligned so we didn’t proceed. This time we went in, it was the exact opposite, it was just like everything fell into place lovely. It’s very interesting.
Q: Let’s talk about what you’ll be doing in Calgary — a passion project of yours.
A: Well, you know, this also involves Tommy Banks. This was Tommy’s project. Tommy approached me with this idea and, needless to say, the music from the recording that we’re doing is one of the all-time classic jazz recordings and one that only fools would dare mess with. (Laughs.) Only fools would dare to tread. And at this stage of our lives, Tommy for some reason approached me about would I like to play that music and I thought if there was ever a time in my life when I could perhaps do it, it would be now. And he purchased all of the arrangements, he sent away to New York and bought all of the music, the exact same arrangements … like the original ensemble. And conducted, he produced the concert — we did it at the Yardbird Suite (in Edmonton) — but he didn’t play on it … That’s how that came about, so now he’s given me the music, and so Tommy’s spirit will be involved in this. It’s these wonderful classic standard compositions so beautifully arranged and played by Charlie Parker. I won’t be attempting to play like Charlie Parker, but it’s pretty hard for a saxophone player not to be influenced by him.
Q: What is it about that album that still resonates?
A: Well, let’s see if I can try to explain this. First of all, Charlie Parker was quoted as saying, and I’ll loosely try to put it in his words, but he said that his focus in music was looking for the pretty notes. Charlie Parker transcended bebop — he was a musician that came out of dance bands in Kansas City, he played at summer resorts, and did all kinds of different kinds of music. I’ve learned through stories and things that I’ve read that he was also a very supportive kind of person. He wasn’t a jazz snob. Apparently he was a really good guy. He had all kinds of problems of course, was strung out like crazy and probably drank a lot, but he apparently was a good guy, very supportive and very open minded, as opposed to a lot of his fans, who thought that the only thing that perhaps Charlie Parker should be playing would be hardcore bebop, which of course he was brilliant at …
And he also loved good music and the standards on Charlie Parker with Strings are great tunes, they’re the best of the 20th century American songbook. How do you go wrong with Summertime and East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)? These tunes, any good musician would understand why anybody would want to play that kind of music. And I know for a fact that Charlie Parker took this recording that he was offered very, very seriously. First of all, it was very groundbreaking at the time that someone out of his world would be asked to go into a studio with all of these legitimate musicians and play these tunes, and have them all arranged specifically for him. So he took it very seriously and what he did that touched my heart — well, everything he did touched my heart, but what was shown on this recording or exhibited on this recording was the heart and the sound. Jazz music, well, all music, really, is all about sound, it’s all about touching people with sound. And Charlie Parker had the ability to create a sound that touched my heart. And when he played the melodies to these tunes, they were played with such amazing feeling that it was delightful to sit there and listen to how he interpreted the music. And then when he got a chance to tear it up and play some solos on the tunes, there was all that bebop brilliance that he possessed. So, for me, it was the best of all the worlds. And it was very important in my life — was and remains to this day one of my favourite, if not my most favourite recording. Every time I hear it I hear more brilliance.
(Photo courtesy Ed Ellis Photography.)
Charlie Parker with Strings featuring PJ Perry takes place Saturday, Feb. 10 at Mount Royal University’s Bella Concert. For tickets and more information please click here.