That Charlie Parker was one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived cannot be disputed. Whether he was the architect of bebop music or simply its most facile interpreter can be argued from now until the end of time, but it scarcely matters any more than it matters who actually wrote the compendium of dramatic literature presented to the world under the name of William Shakespeare. The plain fact is that both the music of Parker and the plays of Shakespeare are among the most sublime cultural artifacts the human race will ever produce. Among the great work of Charlie Parker, the recordings he did for the Dial and Savoy labels have always been counted as among his most representative and enduring work. This work has been released in a variety of collections and formats, including Atlantic’s exhaustive eight-CD Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings 1944-1948. That set is essential for any hardcore Parker fanatic of jazz collector, containing as it does numerous alternate takes that demonstrate Parker’s ability to truly improvise vastly new and different conceptions on the same tune instantaneously. But it can get tiresome hearing numerous takes of the same tune, no matter how wonderful Parker’s playing, and there are certainly good arguments for hearing the final selection, made by Parker and his producer, of the definitive version of a track. For that reason, as well as economics, the three-disc collection just released by Savoy Records, The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes, is compelling listening and a must-have for anyone at all interested in modern jazz.
The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes begins in 1944, with Bird’s first Savoy recordings as a sideman for jump-blues performer Tiny Grimes. These recordings show Parker already in possession of a prodigious talent, even though neither he nor the quintet is playing bop yet. Still, on the Grimes’ composition “Red Cross”, you can tell that Parker was already well aware of where he was headed, and soon most other jazz musicians would be headed that way, too. Though he is already throwing off some of the runs that would make him the envy of every saxophonist within hearing, he demonstrates just how much bop’s rhythmic conception owed to the laconic phrasing of Lester Young. Barely a year later, on his own session, the evolution of bebop is already well advanced, as Parker, Dizzy Gillespie (sometimes a young Miles Davis), and drummer Max Roach are displaying all the elements that would enshrine their names in the annals of jazz forever.
In the very brief “Warmin’ Up a Riff” — a throwaway, really — Parker is displaying his trademark genius melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic conceptions as well as his penchant for throwing musical quotations into the mix. There are several numbers on this session, including “Billie’s Bounce”, “Now’s the Time”, and “Koko” (on which Gillespie plays not only trumpet, but probably piano as well) that would become mainstays of the bebop canon. In March of 1946, Parker recorded “Moose the Mooche”, “Yardbird Suite”, “Ornithology”, and “A Night in Tunisia” for Dial with a septet that included Miles Davis on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, and one of bebop’s greatest pianists, Dodo Marmarosa. These sessions are quintessential Parker, and the 20-bit digital transfers that have been done on this collection give them a new vibrancy. Of course, Parker is the main attraction, but the sessions are incredibly valuable for the opportunity to hear Thompson and Marmarosa, two incredibly talented musicians who were severely under-recorded. They also demonstrate that Miles Davis was not, as has often been reported, unable to play bebop changes or keep up with Parker. True, Davis is no Dizzy Gillespie in terms of either range or dexterity, but he certainly is able to follow the changes and play solos that, for their brevity, are well conceived. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1998, there were no complete and good CD versions of the Savoy sessions available, and that the Dial recordings remained unavailable in the US for many years. Without hearing this music, one can hardly say that one has heard Charlie Parker.
The second disc contains a session by Charlie Parker’s New Stars, featuring Howard McGhee on trumpet, tenor sax player Wardell Gray, another underexposed but brilliant player, Marmarosa, guitarist Barney Kessel, Red Callender on bass, and drummer Don Lamond. Recorded in February 1947, after Parker’s breakdown and subsequent recovery at the Camarillo mental facility, it includes “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and three McGhee compositions, “Cheers”, “Carvin’ the Bird”, and “Stupendous”. The opportunity to hear Parker, at the top of his game, with Gray, who was also heavily influenced by Lester Young, is well worth the price of admission. The disc also contains a session from May of ’47 featuring Bud Powell, bassist Tommy Potter, and Max Roach. This unit gives definitive performances of “Donna Lee”, “Chasin’ the Bird”, “Cheryl”, and “Buzzy”. There’s also a Savoy session under the heading of Miles Davis All Stars, with pianist John Lewis, Max Roach, Nelson Boyd on bass, and Parker on tenor sax. These sessions feature several Davis compositions, including “Milestones” and “Half Nelson”, both of which would later figure prominently in Davis’ repertoire. Here there is evidence that Davis’ work with Parker had strengthened his technique considerably, as he demonstrates much more confidence than on the earlier sessions.
The set drifts from Disc Two to Disc Three on a huge session from the end of 1947 by a quintet comprised of Parker, Davis, Potter, Duke Jordan on piano, and Roach. As a Musicians Union recording ban approached, Dial owner Ross Russell was accelerating his recording of Parker, so there is another Dial session done on 17 December of ’47, with Russell’s wife, Dorothy, supervising the session because Ross was apparently ill yet unwilling to cancel the session. Good thing, too, because the quintet adds trombonist J.J. Johnson for some beautiful workouts on “Quasimodo”, “Crazeology”, and “How Deep Is the Ocean?” Not to be left behind, Savoy brought Parker into the studio on December 21st to wax another four tracks. We’re lucky that both labels were recording Parker so prodigiously at this time, largely because they both had legitimate claims to his services. Russell relocated to New York solely for the purpose of recording Parker, claiming that Bird was under contract to him, while Savoy maintained the same claim. Had either been totally in the right, I’m sure the resulting lawsuit would have meant that some of these glorious tracks wouldn’t have been made. That should be a lesson on the mechanics of when it’s best to shut up and just do your thing vs. rushing into a lawsuit. In any case, once the recording ban was over, only Savoy returned to recording him, with two September ’48 sessions, on the 18th and 24th proving to be the label’s swan song with Parker.
Parker moved on to record with Verve Records under the leadership of Norman Granz. There, he produced some fine recordings, but he only lived for another six years. When one considers that the material on The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes represents four crucial years of Parker’s career, their significance becomes clear. Granz could take Parker to a new level of acceptance and popularity with recordings like Bird With Strings, but he could never recreate the freshness, danger, and sheer delight of discovery that informed Bird’s first years as a leader. Track for track, this Savoy release represents the very best Charlie Parker performances available on a single collection. That is definitely something to get excited about.