Prior to arriving at the BPAC, I didn’t know anything about what music was going to be played or who the two featured soloists were. When I got my seat, I was delighted to read in the program notes that The Carolina Philharmonic would be performing many selections from the treasured Bird with Strings recording, which features probably the greatest alto saxophonist of all time, Charlie Parker.

Since about 1999, artistic director and principal conductor David Michael Wolff has done a fantastic job of presenting orchestral music in the Sandhills area. This was CP’s 10th anniversary jazz festival, although they haven’t held the jazz portion annually – just 10 years ago in 2013 and then in 2014. (CVNC hopes that this 2023 return to jazz will happen more regularly!) CP’s varied orchestral events are always well attended, and their music education program reaches thousands of young people (19,000 to date). This was demonstrated when the show began with their youth and junior orchestras combined with the professional string orchestra on the “Toreador Song” from Bizet’s Carmen. It was short and sweet and a great way to start the night.

Then the first guest soloist Caleb Curtis, was introduced. The first surprise was that Curtis plays a saxophone that most everyone has never seen before. It is an alto sax, but it is a straight alto, not like the familiar curved sax. I had seen it maybe just once before, when I saw jazz legend Rahsaan Roland Kirk perform on it, while at the same time playing two other horns! The tone of the straight alto is deeper than a regular curved alto. My second surprise was that Curtis interpreted Bird with Strings with his own individualistic approach. I have performed Bird with Strings before, but when I did it, I played the Charlie Parker improvisations note for note so I expected Curtis to do the same. But Curtis played his own improvisations and interpreted all of the written music his own way. My first thought was, how can you do better than Bird? But, as the evening progressed, I realized Curtis could successfully take the music to a new level.

A quick mention of the orchestra and their excellent support – the strings were ultra-smooth and there was wonderful playing by oboist and English hornist Deanne Renshaw (on the original recording the oboist is Mitch Miller, who many people may remember as the famed choir director on the TV show “Sing Along with Mitch”). Plus, there was very sensitive support and rhythmic pulse from guest accompanists Kobie Watkins (drums), Ernest Turner (piano) and Paul Gabrielson (bass and festival director).

But back to Curtis: by the set’s end I would have to say he is a brilliant artist. Not only did he excite the entire audience with his rich sound, interesting improvisations, full command of the sax from its altissimo to the low notes, double-time passages, altered tones, tasty effects, and dynamics, but in his final number he brought out a pocket trumpet which he played great. Curtis spoke not once but he did a whole lot of speaking through his horns and music.

After intermission, another very fine musician, Thomas Marriott, graced the stage with his very fluent and warm sounding trumpet playing. Again, the orchestrations, one of which was his own, were very lush and appealing. We all really enjoyed his playing, but a special highlight of his set was on the tune “Colorado” by Matt Jorgenson, when the strings played a jazz soli which thrilled us all with its twisting angular melodies and rhythms. It’s not normal to give the string section a jazz soli, and the audience appreciated that and all applauded them after their feature.

For readers of this review, I recommend listening to the original Bird with Strings recording and then try to see Curtis perform it again. Also, all the guest accompanists and featured soloists have CDs worth listening to. You can hear these artists Sunday May 21 at 3pm when the festival continues at the BPAC. It’s a jazz jam session, and guess who else is joining them: yours truly.

Thanks again CP for a perfectly soothing and interesting evening. See our sidebar for details about the final concert at 3 pm on May 21.