Dizzy Gillespie and Friends: Concert of the Century - A Tribute to Charlie Parker
This may not be the greatest performance of its time, but it's bristling with improvisatory energy and instrumental play that should leave jazz devotees more than satisfied.
Crime of the century. Trial of the century. Game of the century. Fight of the century. The epithet "of the century" has become something of an overused idiom -- a stale marketing gimmick, a hype engine running on fumes. What does it mean, then, to call this rare 1980 live performance by Dizzy Gillespie and an assemblage of jazz greats the "Concert of the Century"? Here, it doesn't seem to be a misplaced superlative; it seems to be a description of the vast landscape of jazz history that these songs radiate. This isn't the best concert of the 20th century, or even the best jazz concert of the 20th century. However, it is definitively of the 20th century, bursting at the seams with breakneck rhapsodies and instrumental acrobatics that draw from the entirety of the jazz tradition.
You can, of course, feel Charlie Parker in these songs, whose mesmeric playing and masterful bandleading inspired the performance. But you can also feel others: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Coltrane, Davis, Gordon, Krupa. For a listener in 2016, knowing all these names doesn't matter as much as recognizing the generations they defined -- generations that, whether they mean something to you or not, find themselves reincarnated through the concert's mile-a-minute survey of the moods, personalities, and vernacular expressions of the genre.
While recorded almost four decades ago on a November evening in Montreal, all eight of these songs seem to belong to a span of time that stretches back to an age of silent movies and Model Ts; they're packed with second-splitting improvisatory energy, but also with an unmistakable reverence for the jazz giants that encircle the concert like smiling specters.
The spotlight is firmly on Gillespie throughout, but the bop-defining trumpeter is backed by an ensemble of world-class musicians: lauded vibraphonist Milt Jackson, tenor sax and flute virtuoso James Moody, and a quick-footed rhythm section composed of Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Philly Joe Jones on piano, bass, and drums, respectively. The concert may be billed as "Dizzy Gillespie & Friends", but each of these "friends" gets their chance to lead the pack.
On "If I Should Lose You", Jackson's vibraphone lopes and lingers like the heavy footsteps of a man pondering his lover's departure. "Darben the Redd Foxx" is all Moody; his flute playing is so immaculately agile that it bears less in common with the fox of the song's title than with its prey: a rabbit racing across the earth, in fear for its life but sure of escape. Unsurprisingly, the triptych "Bass Solo / Manhã de Carnaval / Work Song" gives Ray Brown plenty of room to torque each of his bass notes into strange shapes -- plops, leaps, wisps, pricks -- that disappear just as they materialize.
Throughout, the concert is punctuated by spurts of laughter, applause, and lighthearted banter that capture the roof-lifting excitement that must have been present in the air that night. Yet this excitement is also there in the music, perhaps most prominently on the Gillespie-headlining bacchanalia "Get Happy". It's a performance charged with imperative motion; the players are not only impelled by the title's demand to "get happy", but also by the tempo's demand to keep up.
Gillespie's trumpet, of course, takes centerstage. Listening to it, a litany of analogues comes to mind: a carousel spinning out of control, a pointillist's daydream, a frenzy, a fulmination. However you describe it, like the rest of the "Concert of the Century", it's filled with infectious enthusiasm - an enthusiasm not only for the artistry of the moment, but for the art of the past.