“Bird” Takes Flight

Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings 1944–1948

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“Bird” Takes Flight

Listeners with a casual interest in Charlie Parker and the birth of bebop might neither require nor tolerate the plethora of alternate and incomplete takes and false starts that occupy valuable audio real estate on these ten 180-gram vinyl LPs (just as the same ancillary tracks did on the 2002 eight-CD box set of the same recordings). For the non-completists, such tidier compilations as The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes or Rhino’s well-curated Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection should suffice.

But for anyone who has both a fine audio system with an excellent turntable and a deep curiosity about how Parker found his instrumental voice—how he and his New York and Los Angeles colleagues revolutionized the sound of jazz during the World War II and postwar years—this set will provide hours of incomparable pleasure. Thanks to Paul Reid III’s original digital transfers, audio restoration, and digital mastering, and Wes Garland’s mastering for these hefty, pristine LPs, music that is now 68 to 72 years old sounds warm and uncannily detailed. As we’ve learned from previous reissues of this and other material from the period, the sonics vary tremendously. After all, the sources range from original acetates to 78-RPM shellac records and earlier tape transfers (no acetate masters exist from Ross Russell’s Dial Records sessions). But for most of us, these will be the best-sounding versions of the music that lifted Charlie Parker to the pinnacle of the musical world by 1948 and remains exhilarating and inspirational seven decades later.

Enjoying these historic sessions in analog playback is the primary motive for owning this set; the cardboard box itself is certainly not collectors’ caliber, and nothing has been added to 2002’s detailed notes by Orrin Keepnews, Ira Gitler, James Patrick, Bill Kirchner, and Bob Porter (interviewing Savoy’s Teddy Reig). But there are plenty of other reasons—having to do with what’s in the grooves—to add it to your collection.

These recordings crystalize a moment in history when a new idiom, bebop, was becoming the musical lifeblood of not just jazz, but a huge swath of American culture. Alto saxophonist Charlie (Yardbird/Bird) Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie may have achieved iconic, if not mythical, status as the trail blazers, but these Savoy and Dial sessions—plus recordings licensed by Dial from Guild, Bel-Tone, and Comet—provide a virtual encyclopedia of personnel from that transitional era, starting with guitarist Tiny Grimes, the leader of Bird’s first Savoy dates in September, 1944, and continuing through Dizzy-led groups with drummers Cozy Cole and Sid Catlett, bassists Slam Stewart, Curly Russell, and Ray Brown, singer Sarah Vaughan, and tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, among others. Guitarist/vocalist Slim Gaillard led one session in Los Angeles; vibraphonist Red Norvo brought pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Flip Phillips into the mix in a New York studio; and the Miles Davis All Stars date of August 14, 1947, built from the core of Parker’s Quintet (Miles, Bird, and Max Roach) with added bassist Nelson Boyd and pianist John Lewis deliver superb performances of Davis’ “Milestones,” “Little Willie Leaps,” “Half Nelson,” and “Sippin’ at Bell’s.”

Thirteen dates, from late 1945 through 1948, were Bird’s. They were recorded as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers; the Charlie Parker Septet, Quintet, Quartet, New Stars, and All Stars; and the Howard McGhee Quintet (credited to the trumpeter per union contract). Before the lineups reached some level of stability in 1947, with Miles on trumpet, Tommy Porter or Curly Russell on bass, Max Roach on drums, and Bud Powell, John Lewis, or Duke Jordan on piano, the panoply of players included pianists Argonne Thornton (Sadik Hakim), Dodo Marmarosa, Jimmy Bunn, Russ Freeman, and Erroll Garner, bassist Red Callender, tenor man Wardell Gray, guitarist Barney Kessel, trombonist J. J. Johnson, and others.

You could go through these discs focusing just on pianists Powell, Marmarosa, Garner, Lewis, and Jordan, and study how they were changing the keyboard voicings in modern jazz. Of course you could do the same with the trumpeters: Diz, the fleet, hip veteran, and Miles, the upstart finding his way and growing more confident with his lush, burnished tone and lyrical, economical phrasing.  For rhythmic enlightenment, tune into what Max Roach is doing—the way he steers jazz away from a traditional heavy two-beat emphasis or swing, creates a light feel, and shifts the dynamics with sudden breaks in the beat. Although the drums are often recessed in the mix, you can still hear the path being paved for Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette.

Parker, though, is the blazing star of these proceedings, or, as Gitler quotes Roach in the notes, “the sun giving off the energy we drew from him.” And your attention eventually turns, as it must, to his extraordinary improvisations, his seemingly bottomless well of musical ideas, the way he plays with phrasing and accents, and the way he grafts eight- and twelve-bar melodies onto standard chord patterns and creates timeless originals such as “KoKo,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Ornithology,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Donna Lee,” and “Cheryl.” Regardless of Bird’s personal travails, every tune here, indeed every fragment, is an intense joy ride with infinite shades of glee.