The Charlie Parker Remix Project: Bird Up

[5 February 2004]

By Robert R. Calder

Charlie Parker Very Decidedly Mixed

“Remix project” is here by any intelligent linguistic standards a misnomer. Parker’s not remixed, first of all because the Parker sides chopped and recycled in excerpt here were never “mixed” in the first place, (they didn’t need to be, even if there had been the technology) and second because he’s mixed into rather a lot of quite other stuff he never mixed with. The excerpts from classic Parker recordings wash up in an ocean of electronic chopping and splicing, including sounds even slightly reminiscent of that gentleman from Detroit who came over to Europe with a blues package thirty years ago. More interesting as visual spectacle than musically, he was, as it said on his largest piece of gear, WASHBOARD WILLIE. I’m referring to the overdub of “scratching” above one Parker solo (the noises presumably electronic without Willie’s arrhythmic tendencies) as if there wasn’t enough going on already.

Another title has the Kronos Quartet (no less) and Dr. John (none other), and it would be an idea to record and issue their very interesting collaboration un-“remixed”. Are they as passé as Parker would appear to be to the recycling committee responsible for this product? Ravi Coltrane is presumably another oldie needing some of the nipnipnipnip and tuktuktuktuk, needing some of the some of the looplooploop, possibly because without the electronic intervention he’d be insufficiently insufficiently mono monotonously re-repetitive.

I may not like this sort of thing, but at least the packaging didn’t need to be insulting? This review of course takes literally Toure’s note in the insert to the effect that those involved “decided to bring [Parker] out in front and let him shine again”. Well, we hear Deke Damascus’s soprano on the first track, but by no means clearly enough, rather more than we hear Parker on the same title. What does “out in front” mean? I recoil at the sleeve blurb:

Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker revolutionized music in the 1940s. His searing solos were sermons to the faithful who hungered for a hipper alternative to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller—and Parker delivered like a jazz messiah. Now, Parker’s classics have been dressed in new threads for a new generation.

While I sympathise with anybody looking for something more exciting than Glenn Miller, I’d always gathered that Parker’s music appealed to people already acquainted with and still passionately fond of say Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Basie, even Parker’s sometime boss Earl Hines, et cetera—who found Parker even more interesting. What does “hipper” mean? Is it a musical judgment on the music, or a crowd judgment about a relation to audience hysteria? “Hungered for a hipper alternative”?

Parker’s admirers, a relative minority of any population, were acquainted with jazz, that is to say, with music a variety of which Benny Goodman played for years—unlike the instrumentally somewhat limited trombonist Miller. Miller pretty well gave up jazz after recording a few modest solos—one of them on a 1932 date on which Coleman Hawkins played the then harmonically most advanced horn solo in all recorded jazz thus far. These people who took to Parker weren’t necessarily so fickle as Savoy Jazz’s blurbwriter seems to assume.

Since he was mentioned, Glenn Miller might have gone full-time into the booking business in which he was involved on the side (or did he play trombone on the side?). Instead he formed an initially dullish efficient dance-band and (maybe by accident, the legend flatters only his modesty) one night in the course of having to substitute a clarinet in his reed section he is said to have found the sound he stuck with until his plane went into the English channel in 1944. His music had proved very lucrative, but if people go round calling it a precursor of “sm**th j*zz” (I cannot type the phrase), which it was in terms of pandering to the market, some sod might remarket Miller with that slogan. Maybe it was a precursor of the sort of thing Bird Up! involves.

Miller had the odd and usual showband gimmick, like having a jazz trumpet soloist of high class, the brilliant Bobby Hackett, and pretending to play jazz when that was fashionable. Many of the audience had no idea that any relationship between Miller and jazz was less than tenuous. He did employ jazz players, for their instrumental ability and only marginally their creativity, but in Tex Benecke had a regular tenor soloist who barely pretended to jazz status.

Miller was a processor of music into fashionable sounds, and I feel quite justified in linking what he did to jazz originals (like Erskine Hawkins’s “Tuxedo Junction”), with the efforts here to incorporate snippets of original Parker recordings into something comparably trendy and musically less distinguished (at least than Parker, which is not an insult!).

Does the liner slogan reference to “new threads” really indicate a low opinion of the intended audience, when Parker is being dumbed down or buried in bales of other men’s weaving? He’s certainly not brought “to the front”, though his name certainly is!

Some good musicians got studio fees out of this—did I mention Hubert Laws? Enough!

To adapt the blurb quoted above, Charlie “Bird” Parker may well have revolutionized music in the 1940s. His searing solos are at the very least summonses to the listener who has been made thirsty for an alternative to hearing Parker and his sessionmates surface briefly in an ocean of electronica. This is, I think, the sort of review the CD’s presentation asks for. Parker in person was quite frankly far worse treated. You maybe know the story about Birdland being named after him, and his being turned away at the door? Nobody can, however, blame him for this cannibal fiesta.

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