1. Wee (aka Allen's Alley)
2. Hot House
3. A Night in Tunisia
4. Drum Conversation
5. I've Got You under My Skin
6. Embraceable You
7. Sure Thing
10. Lullaby of Birdland
12. Salt Peanuts
13. All the Things You Are
14. 52nd Street Theme
15. Bass-ically Speaking
Charlie Parker - Alto sax (tracks 1-3, 11-14)
Dizzy Gillespie - Trumpet (tracks 1-3, 11-14)
Bud Powell- - Piano (tracks 1-3, 5-14)
Charles Mingus - Bass (tracks 1-3, 5-15)
Max Roach - Drums (tracks 1-14)
Billy Taylor - Piano (track 15)
For a long time, I assumed that Massey Hall was a venue somewhere in the United States. It is actually in Toronto, Canada. Toronto's New Jazz Society arranged this concert in May 1953 by five of the most prominent pioneers of bebop. The concert was beset by all kinds of problems. Massey Hall, which could accommodate about 2800 people, was less than half full. Charlie Parker nearly didn't arrive at the concert hall; Dizzy Gillespie kept popping off stage to follow the progress of a boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott; and Bud Powell had just been released from a mental hospital. To cap it all, the organisers didn't make enough from ticket sales to pay the quintet its full fee.
This reissue lists Charlie Parker as the leader, but Mingus and Roach originally released the recordings on their Debut label as by "The Quintet". The recordings have been reissued numerous times. This version, from the Phoenix label, claims to be in "the actual order of performance", although other reissues have preferred a different order. This makes little difference to the magnificent performances. The five musicians were all pioneers of bebop and somehow this unrehearsed session brought them together in superb form.
Despite the complications, this album kicks off with an exhilarating version of Wee. Charlie Parker solos first, handling the fast tempo with ease. Dizzy Gillespie is not far behind, although he sounds slightly uncomfortable with the speed, which also challenges Bud Powell, who nevertheless produces some classical bebop soloing. Max Roach adds a seamless drum solo which includes some of his favourite licks.
Hot House is taken at an easier tempo and Bud Powell sounds almost rhapsodic. Throughout this concert, he seems little like the familiar exponent of single notes in the right hand. Instead he uses the whole keyboard in a rich, lyrical style. This is particularly noticeable in tracks 5 to 10, where Parker and Gillespie leave Powell to play with just the bass and drums. Bud's own composition, Sure Thing, is notably rich - spanning the whole piano.
Parker and Gillespie return for Perdido, which some versions claim started the concert. Salt Peanuts is a memorable example of the two men's contrasting yet sympathetic characters. Dizzy is his wild self and Charlie just plays, but they both produce remarkable solos displaying incredible technique.
This CD adds a bonus track recorded later in 1953, featuring Charles Mingus's bass. Perhaps this is justified, given that Mingus's bass was barely audible on the Massey Hall recordings. The recording quality of the whole concert is understandably variable, although it is remarkably good if one considers the conditions in which it was recorded. This event has been called "the greatest jazz concert ever" and, although one tends to avoid making such decisive assessments, it is hard not to feel that this concert ranks highly in the history of jazz.