As a budding 20-year-old saxophonist, T.K. Blue was enamored of John Coltrane’s music, but he’d never heard of Charlie Parker until Jimmy Heath, one of his instructors at the Jazzmobile in New York City, invited Blue to his house to hear some records by Bird, as the late saxophone great was lovingly known.
“Before he played any Bird for me, he showed me a photograph taken in Philly in the Forties,” Blue recalls. “It’s a big band, and Bird is taking a solo, playing Jimmy’s alto, and John Coltrane is sitting in the sax section looking in utter amazement at Charlie Parker.”
Heath then played the student Parker’s recording of “Red Cross,” followed by “Parker’s Mood.” “It just messed up my mind completely,” Blue says of the life-changing experience of hearing Parker for the first time.
Now, some three and a half decades later, Blue delves brilliantly into Parker’s music on Latin Bird, his ninth CD as a leader. The album, Blue’s first for Motéma Records, features eight of Parker’s compositions, most treated to Caribbean, Brazilian, and other imaginative rhythm twists, plus a gorgeous reading of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” Blue’s own “Parker’s Mood”–inspired “Moods of Parker,” and “He Flew Away Too Soon,” a heartfelt solo alto saxophone improvisation dedicated to Benny Powell. The trombonist, Blue’s longtime friend and band mate in Randy Weston’s group, was scheduled to play onLatin Bird but died of a heart attack at age 80 a few days before the recording session.
Blue is joined on the disc by pianist Theo Hill, bassistEssiet Essiet, drummer Willie Martinez, and percussionist Roland Guerrero. This quintet, with James Weidman filling in for Hill, traveled in December to the World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Dakar, Senegal, where Blue also performed with Weston. For the CD, the much-in-demand Lewis Nash subbed for Martinez on two selections, and trombonist and shell-blower Steve Turrecontributed to three others.
“Chi Chi,” the opening track of Latin Bird, is the only song on which Blue solos on flute instead of alto saxophone. It starts at a swing tempo, segues into an Afro-Cuban two-three clave, and finally morphs into a cha-cha-cha. “Si Si” also utilizes a two-three clave, as does the closing “Buzzy,” on which Blue creates a fanfare by overdubbing three saxophones. “Visa” is given a New Orleans second-line bounce, and “BlueBird” begins at a straight-ahead clip before shifting into what Blue calls an “ethereal groove.” The saxophonist rearranged the song melodically and harmonically and borrowed from Parker’s recorded solo for the introduction and for a chorus played in unison by himself and Hill.
The calypso rhythms Blue heard as the child of a Trinidadian mom and a Jamaican dad inform his arrangement of “Barbados,” on which Essiet, Blue, and Hill do a round robin, trading twelves, then fours, then twos before improvising simultaneously, all over Martinez and Guerrero’s lively rhythms. Essiet switches from upright bass to electric bass for “Steeplechase,” which begins in 5/4 time before settling into a funky 4/4. Blue changed the harmony in the melody, and the song’s bridge is taken from Parker’s recorded solo and played in unison by Blue, Essiet, and Hill. The hard-churning samba rhythms of the two percussionists drive “Donna Lee” before the arrangement changes to waltz time and finally returns with great subtlety to the opening Brazilian pulse.
The saxophonist was born Eugene Rhynie in the Bronx on February 7, 1953 and grew up on Long Island, NY. “You could write a book about my names,” he says. He adopted “Talib,” a North African word meaning “student,” as his first name in the early Seventies. “Kibwe,” a West African word for “blessed,” became his last name after a three-year stint later in the decade with Abdullah Ibrahim. Talib Kibwe’s friends called him “T.K.”
In 1999, Arkadia Records, for whom he would make three CDs, suggested the need for a stage name. “Talib Kibwe is not an easy name to remember, and it’s not an easy name to pronounce,” he admits. “’I used to wear blue jeans to school every day at Malverne High, and the kids would call me ‘Blue.’”
Blue was surrounded by many kinds of music while growing up, especially R&B and calypso. His parents also had a couple Louis Armstrong albums. “I saw one of him holding the trumpet with the handkerchief,” remembers Blue, who was eight at the time. “I went to school the next day and told the music teacher I wanted to play trumpet. I had a little handkerchief and tried to imitate Louis. I was getting pretty good. I played for about two years, but then I got a little disillusioned and I got more into sports. After school, you have to choose to either play music in the band or play on the football team. I opted to play football because I thought I’d get more girls that way.”
During his senior year at Malverne High School on Long Island, Blue was inspired by two friends who had a flute-and-guitar folk music duo and asked his mother to rent him a flute. She instead offered to buy him one. He continues to play flute, along with soprano and alto saxophones and mbira, an African thumb piano also known as kalimba.
An honor student in high school, Blue attended New York University on a full academic scholarship and graduated with B.A. in Music and Psychology. He later earned a Master’s in Music Education from Teachers College at Columbia University and for the past three years has been Director of Jazz Studies at Long Island University’s C.W. Post Campus, where he directs the big band and three jazz combos and teaches music theory, jazz history, rock ’n’ roll history, and a number of private students.
At NYU, he studied with saxophonist-composer Jimmy Giuffre, whose emphasis on having a beautiful tone and playing melodically would became hallmarks of Blue’s mature style. Away from the campus, he took advantage of free jazz classes offered around New York City by the organizations Jazzmobile, Henry Street Settlement, The Muse, and Jazz Interactions. His teachers at those programs included Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, Ernie Wilkins, Paul West, Billy Mitchell, Reggie Workman,Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Yusef Lateef.
Blue began gigging around New York City in the mid-Seventies with the Natives, a group led by South African pianist Ndikho Xaba. Through Xaba, he met Abdullah Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand, and joined the exiled South African pianist’s band in 1977. “It was my first real heavyweight gig,” Blue says now. He spent three years touring the world with Ibrahim, with whom he recorded three albums.
Since 1980, Blue has been a member of Randy Weston’s band and currently serves as its musical director. “I’m indebted to him tremendously,” Blue says of the pianist. “He showed me a lot of things about life and how to be a man and also how to seek my heritage and find out about Africa. He took me under his wing and took me all over the world and paid me very well.”
Blue spent much of the 1980s living in Paris and continued performing with Weston, who was also a resident of France. “There were a lot of African people there, which was attractive to me because I wanted to learn about my roots,” he says. “My dad and my grandfather were from Jamaica, but they used to talk to me a lot about Africa. Jamaica has a strong history of Africa because of the Maroon slaves who escaped and went to the mountains and formed their own communities and retained a lot of African cultures.”
The saxophonist, who played in Paris with musicians from throughout Africa, as well as from Brazil, Martinique, and Guadeloupe, made his first album there in 1986. TitledEgyptian Oasis, the disc came to the attention of the United States Information Agency in France and led to three State Department-sponsored tours of Africa for Blue and his band.
Since returning home to New York in 1990, Blue has continued performing and recording with his own groups and with Weston and worked with such diverse artists as vocalists Jeffrey Smith, Bobby McFerrin (North Sea Jazz Festival), and Jimmy Scott; Pharoah Sanders and Dizzy Gillespie (Spirit of Our Ancestors recording); trombonist Benny Powell, poet Jayne Cortez, tap dancer Joseph Webb (Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk), Ghanaian drummer Yacub Addy’s Odadaa, and Afro-Caribbean percussionist Norman Hedman’s Tropique, among numerous others.
Latin Bird, Blue’s remarkable 2011 release, is in many ways a culmination of his years of experience in the various musical styles of Africa and the African Diaspora and the astonishment that still lingers in his mind from hearing Charlie Parker for the first time so many years ago at Jimmy Heath’s house. ▪
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