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Charlie Parker

Five Classic Albums

AVID JAZZ AMSC 1364 [78:02 + 80:59]

 

As far as I am concerned, every note recorded by Charlie Parker is worth hearing, whether it was recorded by an amateur with a tape recorder or in a professional studio and whether the musical context was suitable or unsuitable. But, of course, some recordings are more valuable than others and it would be critically dishonest to claim that everything on these two discs shows Parker at his very best. Yet the discs are certainly worth hearing.

All these five albums were derived from the period when Parker was under contract to Norman Granz, a contract signed late in 1948. Parker seems to have shared Granz’s desire to make recordings which would present the alto player in a range of musical situations; Parker had, for example, long wanted to record with strings, though given his avowed admiration of Stravinsky and Bartok he probably had in mind something rather different from the ‘Hollywood sound track’ arrangements he got on this album.

For the first recording session, Granz put together an ensemble behind Parker made up of Stan Freeman (piano), Ray Brown (bass), Buddy Rich (drums) a harp (Myer Rosen), an oboe / French horn (Mitch Miller), two violins and a cello. ‘Just Friends’ was the first track to be recorded – and it comes off pretty well. After a lush opening from the ensemble, with a cascading downward run on the harp, Parker enters and, after a contribution from Mitch Miller’s oboe, improvises with something like the intensity and adventure he usually brought to his work in more conventional jazz settings. The arrangement by Jimmy Carroll (who was also conducting) survives Parker’s ebullient playing and the unwieldy ensemble actually manages a degree of swing – probably energised by Parker’s playing. Sold as a single, ‘Just Friends’ outsold any other recording by Parker, and it was one he is said to have liked himself. I remember reading (in Robert Reisner’s Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker) that he played it for the doctor who came to attend him in his final illness in the New York apartment of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Unfortunately, on the remaining tracks making up this album, Parker generally sticks closer to the written melodies, though embellishing and ornamenting them. His tone is often very beautiful and the chance to hear Parker playing so many ballads, even pretty straight, makes the listening experience worthwhile.

In his sleeve notes to the original LP Big Band, notes reproduced as usual by Avid, Norman Granz writes “When I first started to record Charlie Parker, I was confronted with the fact that Charlie had done just about everything possible with the small combination that the ‘boppers’ used at that time … and a new musical formula had to be devised for his great talents”. What Granz declares here to be a “fact” is, I’d suggest, no more than his opinion. And the phrase “musical formula” has unattractive implications which are unfortunately realized on Big Band. Recorded on three dates between July 5th 1950 and March 22 nd 1952, the tracks which make up this involved a number of good jazz musicians, such as saxophonists Flip Phillips and Danny Bank, trumpeters Jimmy Maxwell and Bernie Privin, trombonists Bill Harris and Lou McGarity, pianists Lou Stein and Oscar Peterson, guitarist Freddie Green, bassists Ray Brown and Charles Mingus along with drummers Buddy Rich and Don Lamond. There is also a string section on some tracks. The numbers were made up by more than a few ‘commercial’ musicians without any obvious jazz credentials. The arrangements are by Joe Lipman, a pianist and arranger who worked, at various times, with Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Jimmy Dorsey and Les Brown. He was arranger for a number of sessions by Sarah Vaughan, and later, when working for MGM, he arranged recordings by Vic Damone, Bob Crosby and others. Though Lipman, who also conducted the sessions, certainly had an understanding of jazz, these arrangements generally lean too much (so far as being appropriate for Parker is concerned) towards the popular and commercial.

Parker’s solos tend to erupt out of their surroundings and sound rather like an exuberant and voluble Italian entering a conversation amongst some staid Englishmen. There are enjoyable moments, as in some of Parker’s playing on ‘Temptation’, ‘I Can’t get Started’ and ‘Laura’, though Parker has to impose himself on his surroundings, rather than ever being stimulated by them. This album is not essential listening for any but the most unconditionally devoted lover of Parker.

It is easier to love and be excited by Bird and Diz, which opens the first of these 2 CDs. Here Parker is in the company of musicians he could respect, notably Gillespie and Monk, as well as the fine bassist Curley Russell, with whom Parker had played and recorded on many previous occasions. Buddy Rich was, of course, a major jazz drummer, but not, one would have thought, an obvious choice to complete this particular quintet – indeed, it would be hard to think of two musicians of this period who had more conflicting concepts of time than Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich – so putting them in the same rhythm section would seem bizarre, to say the least. Yet in his original sleeve note Norman Granz is eager to claim credit for doing so, declaring “I took as an ideal rhythm section, Thelonious Monk, who is a lesser light in modern jazz but, nevertheless, an important one; Curley Russell, an itinerant bassist, in the modern idiom; and Buddy Rich, a very swinging drummer”. There can’t, I suspect, have been very many since who thought this an “ideal” rhythm section to put behind Parker and Gillespie. Am I alone in finding the way Granz writes about Monk and Russell very condescending?

For all that, and despite obvious difficulties, altoist and trumpeter – especially Parker, take some fine solos, as does Monk in the few opportunities he is given (it is noticeable that Monk plays relatively little when in the role of accompanist alongside Rich). In terms of both rhythm and harmony it doesn’t help that Curley Russell is largely lost in the sound balance. The fast opener, ‘Bloomdido’ – a then new composition by Parker – contains some impressive interplay between Parker and Gillespie, followed by a beautifully cogent solo by Parker, an interesting solo by Gillespie and a characteristically witty contribution by Monk. On the very rapid ‘Leap Frog’ Parker and Gillespie display a thoroughly competitive edge, not least when exchanging four-bar breaks.

Other highlights include ‘Mohawk’, on which there is some fine blues playing – after a short but delightful intro by Monk and a very ‘together’ opening chorus by the horns – in an unhurriedly plangent solo by Parker, to which Gillespie replies with some puckish trumpet observations. An ‘Oscar for Treadwell’ was written in honour of Oscar Treadwell, a jazz presenter on radio who also had tunes written in his honour by Wardell Grey (‘Treadin’ with Treadwell’) and Monk (‘Oska T’); Parker’s piece uses the chords of ‘I Got Rhythm’, as does ‘Passport’ elsewhere on the album. Those changes were frequently used by the bebop generation, so it is not surprising that both Parker and Gillespie should sound very comfortable on these two tracks.

This was to be the last time that Parker and Gillespie were in a recording studio together and, amazingly, it was the only time they ever shared a studio with Thelonious Monk. These reasons would be enough (but there is also some interesting music to be heard) to make this an album worth treasuring, despite the irritation created by Rich’s inappropriate, and sometimes heavy-handed, work at the drums.

Fortunately, on Charlie Parker (CD2, tracks 6-13) we get to hear Parker in fully compatible company. Here he is the only horn. On tracks 6-9 he is accompanied by Al Haig (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Max Roach (drums); on tracks 10-13 Hank Jones and Teddy Kotick replace Haig and Heath. The second rhythm section is perhaps marginally the better of the two, but both serve Parker well. Ever since the first recording of it in November 1945,‘Now’s the Time’ had seemed to bring the best out of Parker and this later reading is no exception. He plays his own blues with a passion approaching stridency. His performance of ‘Confirmation’ is also very fine. With Hank Jones now prompting him at the piano, Parker relishes (while remaking) Jerome Kern’s ‘The Song is You’, with some richly expressive playing. While not perhaps of quite such a high standard, the other three tracks (‘Laird Bird’, ‘Kim’ and ‘Cosmic Rays’) with the Jones, Kotick, Roach rhythm section are eminently listenable. All in all, Charlie Parker, is a recommendable representation of late Parker (how sad it is to have to describe as ‘late’ recordings made when Parker was only in his early thirties).

Indeed, by the time he recorded the last tracks on Plays Cole Porter, in December 1954, Parker had barely four months to live – he died on March 12th 1955. I don’t think it is only that knowledge that makes me find this final studio recording by Parker somewhat lacking in vitality. Again Parker plays with two slightly different groups: Walter Bishop Jr. (piano) and Teddy Kotick (bass) are present on all tracks; on tracks 14-18 they are joined by guitarist Jerome Darr and drummer Roy Haynes; on tracks 19-22 by Billy Bauer (guitar) and Art Taylor (drums). Parker’s playing, though it lacks the urgency of his very best work, is perfectly competent; yet he does nothing that several other saxophonists couldn’t do (and would do in the following years). So it is a rather downbeat ending to this useful collection, on which only Bird and Diz and Charlie Parker can really be said to be suitable introductions to Parker. On the other hand, if you already have, for example, Parker’s recordings for Dial and Savoy, this is a set which should be snapped up.

CD1
Bird And Diz
1. Bloomdido
2. Melancholy Baby
3. Relaxing With Lee
4. Passport
5. Leap Frog
6. An Oscar For Treadwell
7. Mohawk
8. Visa

(Rec. NYC, March 2 & May 5 1949; June 6, 1950)
Big Band
9.Temptation
10. Autumn In New York
11. Lover
12. Stella By Starlight
13. Dancing In The Dark
14. Night And Day
15. I Can’t Get Started
16. What Is This Thing Called Love
17. Almost Like Being In Love
18. Laura

(Rec. NYC, July 5 1950; January 22 & March 25 1952)
Charlie Parker With Strings
19. April In Paris
20. Summertime
21. If I Should Lose You
22. I Didn’t Know What Time It Was
23. Everything Happens To Me
24. Just Friends
25. They Can’t Take That Away From Me

CD2
Charlie Parker With Strings
1. You Came Along From Out Of Nowhere
2. East Of The Sun (West Of The Moon)
3. Easy To Love
4. I’m In The Mood For Love
5. I’ll Remember April

(Rec. NYC, November 30 1949; late summer 1950)
Charlie Parker
6. Now’s The Time
7. I Remember You
8. Confirmation
9. Chi Chi
10. The Song Is You
11. Laird Baird
12. Kim
13. Cosmic Rays

(Rec. NYC July 30 1953; December 30 1952)
Plays Cole Porter
14. I Get A Kick Out Of You
15. I Get A Kick Out Of You (alt. take)
16. Just One Of Those Things
17. My Heart Belongs To Daddy
18. I’ve Got You Under My Skin
19. Love For Sale
20. Love For Sale(alt. take)
21. I Love Paris
22. I Love Paris (alt. take)

(Rec. NYC, March 31 1954; December 10 1952)


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