Sunday, July 17, 2016

CD Review: Charlie Parker - Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes

Charlie Parker
Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes

During his lifetime, Charlie Parker didn't release all that many alternate takes of his music. The concept of presenting both masters and alternates came about with the advent of long playing records, which happened in the years right around his passing. (This isn't definite evidence, but Blue Note's release of three takes of Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" on one album likely gave credibility to the concept).

One thing that can be said about Parker and alternate takes, though: No musician warrants the intrigue and excitement for alternate takes the way Parker does. The one exception here might be John Coltrane, but what I'm about to say applies to him as as well. Having digested all the groundbreaking master takes by the alto saxophonist, what fan wouldn't want to go back and hear how they took shape? While Parker is deserving of accolades like genius, he was still a human being. Therein lies the appeal - hearing the process such a mortal uses to take notes and sculpt them into astounding works that continue to captivate listeners over a half century later.

This Verve collection presents a treasure trove of unreleased takes - some incomplete, some complete - recorded over the course of Parker's time working with Norman Granz's labels Clef and Mercury, 1949-1952.  (Granz didn't launch Verve until after the saxophonist's death). They encompass a wide range of settings, from Machito's Latin orchestra, several small group dates (including the one with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk), the "South of the Border" groups and a big band set. To offer a full picture of each tune, the released master is also included.

Casual jazz fans might fan a set like this a bit tedious. Indeed, it opens with five tracks of Machito's ensemble roaring through "Okiedoke," in which Bird doesn't emerge for the first 60-90 seconds. "Blues (Fast)," from a 1950 quartet session with Buddy Rich (drums), Ray Brown (bass) and Hank Jones (piano) goes through seven tracks (some blown takes are banded together) including the master. But this track in particular provides key elements to the value of the whole set. The "theme" begins as a tossed off lick that bears a trace of Thelonious Monk's approach to syncopation. By the master, Bird has developed it into a mature opening statement.

And then, there are the solos

Parker had expressed the desire in later years to look beyond the bebop structures, and who knows where his muse would have taken him. But while he walked the earth, the saxophonist worked within a limited harmonic framework of blues, ballads and "I Got Rhythm" changes, working creatively within them. In doing so, he had his trademark licks which have become ingrained in saxophonists who have studied him. This set reveals how he worked over a tune, making sure that, if he was going to use some challenging group of notes, that it made harmonic sense. It wasn't merely for show. One amusing aside in that regard comes during "Mohawk" from the Gillespie/Monk session. Realizing the take has broken down, Parker emits one of his familiar bluesy lines, with the thickness of the reed clearly audible, revealing how easy it was for him to just toss off such a tough line.

A 1949 session brings out numerous version of tracks that were mislabeled as "Segment," "Passport" and "Diverse" upon their initial releases. Using the correct labeling that came in the 1988 Complete Charlie Parker on Verve 10-disc set, Unheard Bird follows the "Tune X, "Tune Y" and "Tune Z" terminology. Listening to these in a row, one is hard pressed to wonder what make takes break down, or why one was chosen or another as the master. (With "Okiedoke" the decision is clear, as the master begins with more of a charge than what preceded it.) Parker sounds inspired throughout these takes. Perhaps a little unsure of exactly which path to follow in his, but he always plays with focus. Substandard Bird still trumps most of his followers' best days.

Unheard Bird doesn't yield many new bold revelations, although it might finally put the 1950 session with Gillespie and Monk in a slightly better light. This set, which yielded five originals and a version of "My Melancholy Baby," has been dismissed as a disappointing reunion of the three cornerstones of bebop (along with bassist Curley Russell and drummer Buddy Rich). It sounds fine if it's viewed more along the lines of a pick-up session or informal jam session. Parker comes up with some challenging melodies to play over blues changes and everyone digs in. Rich's bombast sounds like a plea for attention (the same goes for his playing on the "Blues [Fast]" session), but it's manageable. Fanatics might like to know there were no additional takes of the workout "Leap Frog," to go with the previously released 11 takes. Likewise, the "South of the Border" sessions don't include any more takes of "La Cucaracha," a novelty yes, but a personal favorite.

Additionally, fans of between-song banter, who love hearing Bird's voice, will enjoy the brief highlights, including one where guests in the studio are admonished by the leader and by Granz for getting too loud. (Mentioning track names will spoil the surprise.) Phil Schaap, the world's foremost expert on Charlie Parker, provides all the necessary insight to accompany listening. He describes obtaining these tracks from the estate of the late Norman Granz and where they fit in the big Bird picture.

This set might be more of a boon to hardcore fans and scholars, but it does do more to show the human side of Charlie Parker, whose work ethic and vision helped to generate someone who is often reduced to a series of myths and legends. Perhaps that's a 21st-century way of looking at things, but if it provides a greater understanding of this complex man, I think he'd appreciate it.

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