Dizzy Gillespie is the greatest post-war musician never to make a truly great album.
Before bebop, of course, musicians did not make “albums”, but merely 78 RPM singles. They recorded these “sides” in batches certainly, but they were not conceived of as groups of songs, and so the great recordings of Armstrong, Ellington, and Hawkins were released piecemeal and today are collected in anthologies that we think of as “great albums.” But Dizzy Gillespie’s contemporaries in the bop movement each birthed a collection of songs that has become representative of their genius—Parker, Monk, Bud Powell, and Miles Davis all made untouchable albums. In the next generation such a feat was essentially required for the greats such as Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus) and John Coltrane (Giant Steps).
Dizzy was as great a musician as any of these figures. Only Pops, Duke, and Trane rival him in importance, and no one—even Armstrong—can touch him as a pure trumpet player. It seems almost a paradox then that a musician who recorded throughout a career that lasted until the early 1990s never made a brilliant album. A handful of Gillespie platters were memorable—Sonny Side Up, Swing Low Sweet Cadillac, Dizzy’s Big Four—and of course he made a few classics with Charlie Parker. But Dizzy’s is a career of innovation, consistency, humor, intelligence, and integrity—but it’s also a career without a single shining moment.
All of this makes Shout Factory’s Career compilation a grand slam—an essential career retrospective from one of the 20th century giants of American music. The lack of a single must-have album from The Diz makes this two-disc set more than just good and better than great. This is theGillespie collection on the market today.
Career is so good because it collects highlights from nearly every phase of Dizzy’s storied career. For those who don’t know the Gillespie legacy, this collection lays it out, tune by tune. Dizzy started as a bright, crazy young trumpet star in the better big bands of the late 1930s. Here, we catch him with Teddy Hill on “King Porter Stomp” (1937), Cab Calloway on his own composition “Pickin’ the Cabbage” (1940), and then with the great Billy Eckstine band from 1944. Diz is clearly a disciple of Roy Eldridge in these early recordings, but the seeds of his own style are in evidence—an ease in the upper register and a penchant for chromaticism as he easily glides from chord to chord.
Dizzy’s career as an innovator, however, really takes off in the small group sides from the mid-‘40s. Career gives us seven sextet recordings from 1945 and ‘46 that show how Dizzy conceived of a bebop sound that came out of swing as much as reacted against it. The version of “I Can’t Get Started” included here is hardly boppish, with a very bland accompaniment, but you can hear Dizzy finding the most interesting notes from the harmony in building his solo. Only two months later, on “Groovin’ High”, Dizzy is teamed up with Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and the sparks are genuinely flying—with the two horns playing the unison head in perfect synch and Dizzy’s muted solo suggesting the puckish humor that would always be part of his style. The three tracks with this line-up (also featuring Slam Stewart on bass and Cozy Cole’s drums) are stone gems, none better than “Dizzy Atmosphere”, where the flow from Bird’s solo to Dizzy demonstrates why Dizzy said of Parker, “He is the other half of my heartbeat.”
While Dizzy’s small group work is justifiably famous, he did not abandon the big band sound as he was helping to invent bebop. Here, we get a heaping dose of Dizzy’s late-‘40s big band—particularly the sides that introduced the concept of Afro-Cuban jazz, featuring Chano Pozo on congas. “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” and “Manteca” are diamonds that haven’t stopped shimmering in 60 years—brilliant essays in rhythm and arrangement (credited to George Russell and Gil Fuller) that still scream out of your speakers at full throttle. Dizzy’s lead on “Manteca” is one of the great sounds in American music.
When Dizzy returned to small group recordings in the 1950s, the bebop sound was no longer a scandal. “Bloomdido” is essentially from an all-star session with Diz, Bird, Thelonious Monk on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Buddy Rich on drums. There’s nothing to say about music this good other than: listen to it. Dizzy’s solos here, on “Birk’s Works” with Milt Jackson, and on the two tracks from the all-star concert with Bird, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach (“Salt Peanuts” and “Perdido”) are the pinnacle of jazz trumpet playing—virtuosic, subtle, sliding, blue, declamatory and fiendishly clever. It is standing ovation stuff, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting to your feet in your living room.
Disc Two of Career moves us into the more workmanlike stage of Dizzy’s career. Like a great physicist, Dizzy did his groundbreaking work early, but the career that followed was special if not consistently revolutionary. During this period, Dizzy recorded a great deal for Norman Grantz’s Verve label, appearing often with “special guests.” The “It Don’t Mean a Thing” included here, with Stan Getz, Roach, and the Oscar Peterson Trio, is a fine example of this kind of one-off meeting working wonderfully well for Dizzy. His solo is like scrambled eggs and salsa—whirling and hot as steam. The “Mean to Me” (1956)with Sonny Stitt and John Lewis shows a more conversational side of Diz, as he cools it, despite a double-time break at the start of this solo that reminds you how much fuel he has in the tank even on a medium swinger.
The later big band recordings are remarkable for their young star line-ups (Lee Morgan, Melba Liston, Al Grey, Benny Golson, Wynton Kelly, among others) and punch. Another from 1975 with Machito’s big band shows that, even late in his career, Dizzy was essentially a lead trumpeter with a bebop soul, riding over an electric bass and team of percussion. Disc Two also features an early ‘60s working group with Lalo Schiffrin on piano that was typical of some of the more faceless bands that Dizzy lead in the latter part of his career, but darn if they aren’t extremely hot recordings, demonstrating that Dizzy was a brilliant bandleader even when his talent was less than top-shelf.
Dizzy performed consistently for more than a half-century and, while this set properly focuses on the ‘40s and ‘50s, it includes two tracks from the great trumpeter’s twilight. “Wheatleigh Hall” pairs him with Cuban disciple Arturo Sandoval. Dizzy’s adoption of Cuban music made him a hero on the island, and Sandoval was one of many Cubans who owe their jazz careers to the Diz. But, as a trumpeter, Sandoval will always be Dizzy’s inferior, even on this 1982 track. The best of Dizzy’s imitators realized that, like Miles Davis, you could apprentice in Dizzy’s high-flying style but it was better to stake out your own ground artistically. Sandoval is a brassy imitation without nearly the humor and sly wit that Dizzy brings to even this late date.
The final track on Career is a tribute date recorded shortly before Dizzy left us to join Bird, Monk, Duke and Pops up above. Dizzy lived one of the longest and most productive lives in jazz. He was and is the role model for young guys in the music—no drug use, married for a half century to one woman, a good businessman, and incomparable combination of showman and artist. In this last recording, he’s frail, and the musician accompanying him surely knew it. But it hardly matters. The group plays the iconic tune “Bebop”—of course, Dizzy wrote it—and when it’s time for the master to take his turn everyone sets a smooth, swinging table for him.
He fumbles some, and the tone is hardly what it once was, but Dizzy still skitters over the changes with grace, a brilliant musical mind picking out the hip notes as it constructs one of his final solos. There’s nothing sad about it—because Dizzy’s life was one of the greatest solos of all.
// Notes from the Road
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