Before Eminem revealed to us his dirty laundry in heretofore unheard of ways; before the Stooges parlayed sexual angst and nowhere-nothing nihilism into purgative noise; before Elvis stimulated the collective estrus of American women with a simple thrust of his pelvis—before all of these instances of defiant insolence through music—there were these guys.
Charlie Parker. Stan Getz. Dizzy Gillespie. Miles Davis. Dexter Gordon.
In the early 1940s, these mostly 20-something musicians, among others, were the rebels of their time. They were part of the movement that begat bebop—a swirling, improvisational, and sometimes drug-influenced reaction to the sterilized sway of the erstwhile mainstream swing sound.
For today’s young rebels who wish to reject established modes while at the same time appreciating their forbears, Savoy Jazz is re-releasing a truckload of old recordings by these seminal musical iconoclasts. First Steps captures some of bebop’s earliest and finest practitioners in the act of inventing a brusquely expressive and stylistically irreverent genre.
A fairly balanced mix of well-known and obscure names appears here, resulting in an engaging cross-section of artists with varying styles and dispositions. To uninitiated ears, it may come off as homogenous at first, but for jazz aficionados and neophytes with patience, this is a veritable minefield of sonic jewels, each one possessing the singular personality of the different performers who carved them out.
The first real treat comes with “Shaw ‘Nuff”, a collaboration that features jazz giants Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The track begins with a syncopated bass-drum-piano line that leads into a Latin-tinged horn salvo, which gives way to a brisk and volatile three minutes of freaky, fast-paced bliss.
Following is an intoxicating tenor sax workout compliments of the criminally under-recognized Ike Quebec, whose All-Stars step back and while he rips it up on “Jim Dawgs”.
The Erroll Garner Trio slows things down with “Laura”, a shimmering display of piano virtuoso by Mr. Garner that is as rich in sublimity as it is in technical prowess.
Later one gets to listen in on the burgeoning talent of a young Stan Getz, who infuses “And the Angels Swing” with a seamy, faintly sexual swagger that effortlessly commands the head to bob and the fingers to snap.
Other highlights include Miles Davis’s “Half Nelson”, where you’ll hear hints of the cool, ethereal style that, only a few years later, would captivate the hearts and minds of young urbanites everywhere. Also deserving mention is a “True Blues” by Milt Jackson, who magically elicits a blue silkiness from the metallic clang of the vibraphone.
The truth is, all of these gentlemen deserve mention. From the slipping and sliding trombone of Jay Jay Johnson, to the gentle lyricism of Harold Land’s saxophone on “I’ll Remember April”, First Steps is jam-packed with moments of passionately executed and lovingly preserved songs that were revolutionary then, and even today sound fresh, affecting, and vital. So get out there, kids, and learn about the true genesis of the profanation of American music. If it doesn’t impress your friends, it will no doubt endear you to that “cool” high school English teacher that you’re almost guaranteed to encounter sooner or later.