Reviewed on this page:
Town Hall, June 22, 1945 - The Very Best of Bird - The Complete Savoy And Dial Master Takes (1944-1948) - The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker -
Jazz At The Philharmonic, 1949 - Jazz At The Philharmonic, 1949 - Charlie Parker (1969) -
Bird 'N Diz - Jam Session - Inglewood Jam: Live At The Trade Winds, 16 June 1952 - Bird's Best Bop On Verve - Now's The Time - Plays Cole Porter - Unheard Bird
To start with the broadest oversimplification, Charlie "Bird" Parker was the Jimi Hendrix of jazz: after years of apprenticeship, he hit an already popular art form like a cyclone, bringing transformative stylistic innovations together with unquestionable virtuosity, and rapidly created a body of work that's been studied by generations ever since before flaming out in an early death, leaving behind various unexplored avenues and lots of subpar late live recordings.
Of course, a heroin-using jazz musician in the 40s faced dramatically different material conditions and artistic challenges than a psychedelic-using rocker in the late 60s, and beyond that there are a few other ways the analogy doesn't hold up. Perhaps most relevant for my purposes, Parker is far harder for a casual listener to appreciate - in fact, I'd argue he was the greatest single reason why jazz evolved from a crowd-pleasing mass culture phenomenon to an esoteric acquired taste for snooty insiders and academics. Even sticking to small-combo bebop, any lay person can be moved by Monk's off-kilter clanks or Trane's ecstatic energy, but Bird's tricky triple-time runs can be bewildering rather than satisfying - if a beautiful string of notes goes by so fast you can't understand it, is it still a melody?
Having said that, of course there are tremendous rewards waiting for the listener who digs into Parker, and it won't necessarily turn you into an annoying pseudo-cognoscente. As ever, Wilson & Alroy are here to help: I've listened to nearly every note Parker recorded, and the ratings on this page point you to the records most suitable for a normal person. I'm deeply indebted to Peter Losin's Miles Ahead website for discography/sessionography information; as always, any errors are my own.
Town Hall, June 22, 1945 (Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars: rec. 1945)
I know bebop was born during late night jam sessions at Minton's, but you can hear the still-young movement in full flower here. Apart from Tadd Dameron's "Hot House" all the tunes are Gillespie's, and he's at his peak as a composer - "Salt Peanuts," "Groovin' High" and "A Night In Tunisia" may be his best known compositions. While I'm at it, I might argue that bebop peaked very early, and that Parker and Gillespie's most important stylistic and theoretical advances are already evident here ("Bebop"). So it's an essential historical document, but even if it had been recorded yesterday, the infectious excitement of all present would make the recording a standout. If there's a weak link, it's pianist Al Haig: he's on the same page as everyone else, he just doesn't read as quickly. Don't ask me how that guy got to be Secretary of State.
The Very Best of Bird (rec. 1946-7, rel. 1978)
The earliest coherent Parker compilation on LP - almost all the master takes he recorded for Dial in 1946 and 1947, his most influential period, and nothing else - and it's still a great starting point today, particularly if you're a jazz skeptic. One classic after another: "Drifting On A Reed," "Relaxing At Camarillo," "Ornithology," "Yardbird Suite," Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia," etc. Most of the cuts are with Miles Davis on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, plus Duke Jordan on piano and Tommy Potter on bass - unfortunately, due to the recording technology of the day, you
can't hear the rhythm section much.
Only odd thing about this compilation is that all the standards are stuck on Side A; the other three sides are originals, in chronological order.
I didn't rate this five stars only because the 3-CD set directly below has all these tracks plus a bunch of other gems. (DBW)
The Complete Savoy And Dial Master Takes (1944-1948) (rel. 2003)
What becomes a legend most. All the sides that made Parker's reputation are right here, starting with the Fall 1945 session that produced "Anthropology," "Billie's Bounce" and "Now's The Time."
The compositions are like cathedrals: dazzling at first encounter but meticulously constructed, based on rock-solid foundations (often the blues or the chord changes of "I Got Rhythm"). The recordings aren't always crystal-clear but usually you can hear what the rest of the band is doing, and while Miles Davis was still learning his craft, Bud Powell, Duke Jordan and Max Roach are terrific.
Like any album with Complete in the title, it's not wall-to-wall winners: you may not get much out of an early session with Tiny Grimes and some recordings made in California when Parker was so wasted it's a miracle he was able to hold a saxophone, let alone play it ("Lover Man").
Note that there's also a nine-disc version including every false start and alternate take, and I don't recommend it for general audiences. (DBW)
The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (rec. 1947-8, rel. 1991?)
The ultimate "essential for die-hards, must-miss for everyone else" release: aspiring saxophonist Benedetti recorded just the Parker solos (and occasionally the out choruses) on two hundred songs played in clubs before and after Bird's California breakdown. So it's often hard to tell what the heck is going on, every solo starts in media res and the sidemen are hard to hear, but on the other hand it's five hours of otherwise unheard Bird during his most creative period, playing all his hits plus lots of standards he never otherwise attempted.
Jazz At The Philharmonic, 1949 (1949)
An all-star jam with Ray Brown, Buddy Rich, Lester Young, Hank Jones and so on. Such affairs can easily turn into a ragged mess, but this group keeps control of the dynamics and tempo, often rousing but never frantic - at least until the climax of "The Closer." The improvised horn lines behind the featured players exemplify the collective collegial spirit.
It's easy to get swept away in the endlessly melodic soloing - and I recommend doing just that - but the parade of stars is also a fascinating clinic in the different approaches to jazz that were current at the time: Young's solo on his own "Lester Leaps In" isn't a rebuke to the more modern solos he follows, just a presentation of what he brought to the party.
The set becomes legendary when Ella Fitzgerald doesn't know any of the words to "How High The Moon," extemporizes a hilarious self-referential chorus, then scats brilliantly.
Complete Royal Roost Live Recordings (rec. 1948-1949)
There are a lot of unauthorized live recordings out there, and many Bird fans need never even dip a toe into those waters. However, if you've already been through the Dial, Savoy and Verve material and want more, you might make the Roost your next stop, for three reasons: 1. The recordings were made from radio broadcasts, so the sound quality is better than audience recordings (though the rhythm section is often indistinct). 2. The musicians are Parker's regular working group, so it's a truer representation of his artistic intent than the many all-star jams or pickup bands he played with. 3. Parker himself is generally in excellent form.
By the same token, though, this means familiar tunes like "Scrapple" and "Groovin' High" are played three or four times each, and there are many runs through the radio show signoff "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid."
Charlie Parker (rel. 1969)
This release is from the Everest Records Folk & Jazz Archive, and like most of their output it's gray market live recordings with very high musical quality and equally low audio quality. This release is more scattershot than usual, drawing on at least four different sources ("Koko," from a 1948 radio broadcast; "Cool Blues," probably recorded in a Brooklyn Loew's in 1952). So it's got interesting stuff - the only Parker recording of "White Christmas," made on Christmas 1948; a 1950 date with Bud Powell and the final recordings of Fats Navarro ("Move") - but it's so disorganized it's not really appropriate for newbies or die-hards. (DBW)
Bird 'N Diz (1950)
I'm listing this because of the star power: besides being a rare reunion with Gillespie, it's also got Monk tickling the ivories and Barney Rubble, I'm sorry, Buddy Rich on skins. Nevertheless, and this is a big "nevertheless," nobody appears in their best light, as the band doesn't gel and the tunes are nothing special ("Leap Frog").
Jam Session (rec. 1952)
A live-in-the-studio jam that's very sax-heavy: Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter join Bird on alto, while Ben Webster and last-and-least-but-no-offense-because-the-other-four-are-legends Flip Phillips are on tenor. The all-star rhythm section is Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and J.C. Heard. (Just between you and me, Charlie Chavers on trumpet and Barney Kessel on guitar seem to be along for the ride.) Four tracks: an improvised blues; Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?"; Hodges's "Funky Blues" and an extended ballad medley with each participant leading one section.
Inglewood Jam: Live At The Trade Winds, 16 June 1952 (rel. 1978?)
One of many late period jams in a nightclub, and I'm not sure why I like this one so much but I do. Part of it has to do with a young Chet Baker - I'm not his biggest fan but he plays well here. Partly it's the high-energy vibe - contrary to the West Coast Jazz stereotype - that draws me in.
It's gradually sinking in, though, that the real star of the session is fellow altoist Sonny Criss. By this point Criss had internalized Parker's melodic vocabulary but delivered it with his own forceful, blues-rooted tone, and it's extraordinarily exciting (Tadd Dameron's "The Squirrel").
In fact, don't tell anyone I said this but at certain points he's a Bird-ier Bird than Bird.
Bird's Best Bop On Verve (rel. 1995)
Producer Norman Granz spent several years recording Parker in a variety of contexts, and undoubtedly performed an invaluable service by keeping Parker from falling completely apart. But the musical results are mostly disappointing: A ton of sappy recordings with strings (including an album's worth of Cole Porter covers), and a bunch of orchestral and Latin recordings where Parker sounds out of place, the whole arrangement is corny, or both. In 1951, though, Parker suddenly got back to small-group bebop, and recorded several tunes that rank with his most enduring work: the intricate-but-swinging "Blues For Alice," "Confirmation" (actually written years before but never cut in the studio), "Au Privave."
This disc collects all that material (plus some of the Bird 'N Diz songs) and it's where I suggest you start with Bird's late period. If you're interested in the full picture, there's a ten-CD boxed set called Bird that contains nearly all the Granz recordings (including Jam Session) plus some late 40s all-star concerts (including Jazz At The Philharmonic, 1949).
Now's The Time (rec. 1952-3)
This is a well organized Verve release comprising two complete quartet dates, one from 1952 and another from 1953. None of the material is available on Very Best Of Bird, and most of
it's excellent: "Confirmation" and the title track are the best
known. The quartet format leaves Parker maximum space to improvise,
and some of the tunes don't even have themes: he just blows from
start to finish. Verve could have given you a lot more for your
money, though - the disc runs less than forty minutes, and about
half of that is outtakes - and you're better off tracking down Best Bop On Verve.
Plays Cole Porter (rec. 1953-4, rel. 1957)
About half the tracks are with a lush, Hollywood-sounding orchestra, and pretty hard for me to listen to (the vocal version of "In The Still Of The Night" is particularly painful). But the contrast makes the small combo numbers stand out even more: Parker's at his best on numbers like "I Get A Kick Out Of You" and "Begin The Beguine." Check this out if you're curious about Parker with strings, but not curious enough to commit to the gargantuan Bird. (DBW)
Unheard Bird (rel. 2016)
Lo and behold, Verve dredged up a bunch of outtakes that aren't on Bird. For context (and, one suspects, because the 58 unreleased cuts wouldn't fit on one disc but made for a meager double-CD), the master takes of each song are included as well. Most of the material is from the Norman Granz experiments I'm not crazy about ("Tune X"), so by definition it's worth getting for completists, but of limited appeal to anyone else.
On next week's program, Now: Is it the time?