Sunday, March 30, 2014

Charlie Parker: Yardbird Suite

In 1990, YHB was moving from a predominant interest in alternative rock (whatever that seemed to mean at the time) to a wide-ranging mix of rock, world, classical, hip-hop, reggae and jazz.  With the latter, there had been an initial exposure starting in 1984 to the music of Miles Davis, mostly of that era with a look back at Bitches Brew because of its historic connotations as well as its inherent musical interest.

With the sea change in '90, though, came an opportunity to research the early history of jazz for a project at work.  This involved buying vinyl recordings of such performers as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke and the amazing 1925 and 1927 work of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.  It also meant listening to George Gershwin's notable Rhapsody in Blue, as well as wading through such pop confections that appropriated shallow imitations of jazz sounds as those produced by Ferde Grofe, Jean Goldkette and the so-called "King of Jazz," the massively popular Paul Whiteman.

It was naturally Armstrong's work, including small ensemble work with the great pianist Earl Hines and the remarkable bandleader Fletcher Henderson that made the biggest impact.  Before he became popular and settled into an entertainment mode that left the innovations of the Twenties behind, Armstrong was so far beyond his contemporaries in power, control, intonation and improvisatory ideas, in addition to his innate entertainment skills, that it was as if he occupied his own distinct musical world.

After Armstrong, the next musician in jazz who made that sort of impression was the masterful alto saxophonist Charlie Parker.  This blogger saw Clint Eastwood's well-intended, but somewhat one-dimensional film Bird, but had not heard any of Parker's music until a double vinyl album of his Savoy and Dial recordings of the middle to late 1940s was acquired.

What an impression!  It was similar to hearing the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens material--realizing that here was someone who singlehandedly led a musical form into another direction.  Years passed, though, and, while appreciation for Parker's astounding achievements remained, nothing was purchased on CD until quite recently.

Which leads to Rhino's excellent two-disc survey of Parker's short recording career of about a decade, Yardbird Suite.  This well-chosen and sequenced recording, aptly subtitled "The Ultimate Collection," takes the listener from Parker's appearance on a single by his collaborator and fellow innovator, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, from March 1945 to work done under the production of Norman Granz shortly before Parker's death in 1955.

Masterpieces abound, including Gillespie's 1945 renditions of "Salt Peanuts" and "Hot House", Parker's Savoy and Dial recordings of "Ko Ko," "Moose the Mooche," "Yardbird Suite," "Ornithology," "Relaxin' at Camarillo," "Donna Lee," "Chasing the Bird," "Embraceable You," a Gershwin and Gershwin chestnut, the mysteriously named "Klactoveedsedstene." "Scrapple from the Apple," and "Parker's Mood," and his work under Granz  from the early to mid Fifties such as "Star Eyes," "My Little Suede Shoes," "Bloomdido," and "Confirmation."  There is also a nice selection of live recordings from concerts at Birdland, the famed club named for Parker, and Rockland Palace from 1951 and 1952, the latter showcasing him with strings.

It's easy to focus on the Savoy and Dial pieces, which are, without question, where Parker's greatest work is heard, but the judicious selection of material of post-1948 work under Granz' supervision has plenty of excellent playing by the sax legend and his various bands.  In fact, the level of musicianship from his sidemen is generally top-notch, including a young and maturing Miles Davis, the master drummer Max Roach, Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Buddy Rich (on 1950s "Bloomdido"), the great drummer Roy Haynes, who is still with us, Percy Heath, and Bud Powell.

Naturally, hearing Parker create magic time after time on this recording is something to behold.  His sureness of touch, strong tone, speed, power and breathtaking  development of ideas during his improvisations is staggering.  It is easy to see why he was legendary during his short life and so influential (and daunting) to alto sax players and other musicians afterward.  He was truly in his own musical world, as Armstrong was, and others who followed, like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.

Attention focuses too often on Parker's drug and alcohol addictions, his behavior towards fellow musicians and people close to him, and so on, but his music, starting with recordings that are seven decades removed, is still powerful and affecting, ensuring he will have a legacy for as long, probably, as music is heard.

In addition to the great music, there is a 60-page booklet chock full of essays with biographical and discographical information, as well as a number of excellent photos of Parker, Harlem during the era, and many of the musicians who played on the tracks.  As a summation of his career and a good introduction to newcomers as well as a satisfying compendium, presumably, for devotees, Yardbird Suite is a great document of the one of the greatest of all musicians, the incomparable Charlie Parker.

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