Friday, August 29, 2014

The Quintet Live at Massey Hall

This is an unbelievable concert by a lineup of great musicians putting on a clinic of stellar ensemble playing and proficient and inventive soloing of the highest order, put on at a performance at the Toronto venue on 15 May 1953.

Unfortunately, a heavyweight title fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Wolcott and poor promotion and publicity led to a disappointing turnout to hear Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles  Mingus display their individual and collective talents on famed "bebop" tunes like "Salt Peanuts." "Hot House," "A Night in Tunisia," and "Perdido."  

The program also consisted of a beautifully-played standard, "All the Things You Are," and a lightning-fast workout in "Wee." These round out an album that doesn't appear to have any real downsides, although Mingus, who released the album on his own Debut, overdubbed bass passages because of under-recording at the concert.  Notably, Mingus and Roach were responsible for the recording, a significant achievement given that live albums were still relatively new.

Parker, characteristically, showed up to the gig without a saxophone, so borrowed a plastic Grafton alto.  Contractual issues also prevented the use of his name, so he went by the alias of Charlie Chan, a combination of his and his girlfriend's first names and a riff on a Chinese detective character from 1930s films.  Parker, whose top-notch playing days were rapidly dwindling (within two years he would be dead at 34 from alcohol and drug abuse and other factors), is a mighty player here, setting the pace for everyone else, as his force-of-nature effect often did. 

Gillespie, performing with his old partner, for the last time, is also in great form, displaying great speed, clarity in the highest notes, and showing that he was one of the few front-line players who could hold his own with the legendary Bird.  It was said, interestingly, that, when not playing, Gillespie constantly disappeared backstage to check on the status of the Marciano-Wolcott fight--the problem with the account is the fight was very short, with Marciano knocking Wolcott out with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first round, unless Gillespie was tuning into pre and post fight commentary or something!

Powell, who was evidently stone drunk from the get-go and would soon slip into mental illness that rapidly diminished his formidable skills, plays with great aplomb and authority, showing why he was considered one of the greatest pianists of his era. 

Mingus, the least-known of the combo at the time and who was a year or so from being a bandleader and crafting some of the greatest compositions in jazz, is a steady presence and performs especially well with Roach.  As for the sublime drummer, what can be said? 

Roach is totally in command of all of his ample resources behind the kit, accompanying each soloist as befitted the situation and then playing fantastic solos.  In some ways, his performance is the best as he had to be the bedrock, along with Mingus, but in a more visceral way, for the trip of legendary frontline soloists.

It is hard to imagine a recording that boasts such a stellar lineup--and one that fully delivered the goods.  The only alleged mark of real tension came when Parker, introducing "Salt Peanuts," referred to Gillespie as his "worthy constituent [rather than 'colleague'?]," which comment supposedly so irritated the trumpeter that Gillespie took to yelling the song title repeatedly during Bird's solo.  Yet, there was considerable laughter as the tune ended, though Gillespie was later quoted as saying he was angered by Parker's antics.

Then, there was the matter of payment.  With low turnout came minimal receipts which meant that there wasn't much money for the musicians.  Only Parker received money with Gillespie observing that he only was paid "years and years" after the gig.  Toronto was hardly a jazz center and the combination of the boxing match and the sad state of marketing the show all combined to lead to a hall that was about a quarter full.

Fortunately, this album has had a long life and several reissues and as long as this music is available it will, hopefully, have listeners.  It is one of the great jazz records this amateur has come across of the hundreds in the growing collection.

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