The subtitle of Bluebird/Legacy’s new compilation, Night in Tunisia: The Very Best of Dizzy Gillespie, isn’t exactly the whole truth; at best, it’s fodder for debate amongst Gillespie scholars. Night in Tunisia collects 14 tracks from 1946 to 1949 while Gillespie recorded for the RCA Victor label. Therefore, while it covers Gillespie’s landmark big bop band and Afro-Cuban recordings, his invaluable collaborations with Charlie Parker (both before and after this brief three-year period) are overlooked, as are provocative bebop compositions like “Salt Peanuts”, “Shaw Nuff”, and “Groovin’ High”. Technically speaking, a compilation such as this can’t possibly masquerade as the very best, even if its contents are inarguably stellar for the period sampled.
Night in Tunisia does include a 1946 recording of the title track (its name, technically speaking, is “A Night in Tunisia”), which includes Milt Jackson on vibes and Don Byas on tenor sax. It remains, 60 years later, a striking piece of counterpoint and exotic contortion, punctuated by Gillespie’s heart-stopping solo, which erupts with vicious exclamation in a way only his trumpet could. Other small-combo cuts include a take of Thelonious Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” and “Anthropology”, co-written with Parker, a slice of dance-friendly bop that swings in rapt ecstasy.
Gillespie spiked otherwise “uptight” big-band swing music with mathy bebop in the late ‘40s, resulting in tunes like a souped-up run through “Two Bass Hit” and the combustible romp “Oop-Pop-A-Da”. “Oop-Pop-A-Da”, in particular, is playful and sophisticated, Gillespie’s and Kenny Hagood’s scats invoking the jocular atmosphere of Cab Calloway before Gillespie’s trumpet sets off like a cork from a riled champagne bottle. Similar is “Ool-Ya-Koo”, a continuation of the obsession with vowel sounds that drops its tomfoolery smack-dab in the middle of complicated, swingin’ music. With the introduction of Chano Pozo on congas and bongos, Gillespie took his big band into the Afro-Cuban heat; Latin-flecked tracks like “Cubana Be”, the percussion-heavy “Cubana Bop”, and the fiery “Manteca” are all on full-boil, consistently challenging and joyous stuff, as much of an assault on ears and personal constitutions as anything made with electric guitars and sneering attitude.
As Will Layman noted in his review of last year’s Career: 1937-1992 box set, Gillespie’s catalog can’t be reduced to significant albums per se, so compilations like Night in Tunisia are the primary source for putting together an appropriate collection. Night in Tunisia is a good one-disc distillation and sonic upgrade of the two-disc The Complete RCA Victor Recordings: 1937-1949, which is now over ten years old; while it reeks of a rush job (there are scarcely any liner notes here save for a list of musicians, and the “Signature Series” visual template caters to the casual Starbucks-browsing jazz tourist) and can hardly be deemed “the very best”, the music itself can’t exactly be argued with.