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In the early 1980s, when a young sixth-grader in Colorado first heard Charlie Parker, his life was transformed. Now a world-class saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa is paying homage to Parker with his new album, Bird Calls. Mahanthappa says it's a tribute to Charlie Parker — but there are no Charlie Parker songs here.
"Each composition is based on a particular Charlie Parker song or solo," he explains. "Really, I feel like the best way we can pay tribute is to show what we've learned from him — not so much play his music."
The idea for the record took root years ago, when Mahanthappa was working with a student on a Parker tune called "Donna Lee" — a notoriously fast and complicated piece that sax players often strive to master, the way a budding rock guitarist might study "Eruption." To make the song more approachable, they broke it into smaller chunks.
"But in hearing these snippets out of context, these snippets started sounding more like Bartok or contemporary classical music, or even elements of something more funk-like — just modern," Mahanthappa says. "And it started striking me that maybe there was more to Charlie Parker than I had previously thought."
Mahanthappa spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about what he's learned from Parker, and why the late master's music always feels personal to him — even on paper. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.