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8.120700 - PARKER, Charlie: Mellow Bird (1949-1952)
CHARLIE PARKER Vol.3
‘Mellow Bird’ Original Recordings 1949-1952
Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the most significant jazz musicians of all time. He was such a brilliant soloist on alto that even his throwaway phrases became the vocabulary of jazz. Bird could play perfectly coherent solos at ridiculous tempos and he was very advanced harmonically yet was also a masterful blues player. His prime period (1944-54) was relatively brief yet he came up with so many innovative ideas during his short life that he permanently changed the mainstream of jazz from swing to bebop, transforming a music that was considered part of the entertainment field into one universally thought of as an art form.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, on 29 August 1920, Charlie Parker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As a young teenager he began playing the alto sax and dropped out of school at fourteen to become a professional musician even though he was not ready yet. After being essentially laughed offstage a few times, he spent several months one summer working hard, woodshedding on his horn, studying Lester Young records and building up his mastery of the fundamentals. By the time the summer was over, Parker was strong enough to impress his fellow musicians. He worked with Jay McShann’s Orchestra off and on during 1937-42, making his recording debut, visiting New York with the band and jamming with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie for the first time.
Parker and Gillespie worked together frequently during 1943-45, as sidemen with the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine Orchestras, on 52nd Street and in a series of recordings in 1945 that stunned the jazz world. Their brilliant techniques, adventurous ideas and knack for improvising over the chords of songs were at first considered quite controversial. However within a couple years they were hugely influential, moving jazz far beyond Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
Parkers' life was adversely affected by his addiction to heroin, which he had acquired as a teenager. In the fall of 1945, he traveled with Gillespie to Los Angeles, introducing bebop to a West Coast audience that proved largely indifferent to the music. Although he made some classic recordings while in Los Angeles, the lack of a reliable drug connection resulted in Bird trying to fight his addiction by drinking excessively. He suffered a mental breakdown and spent six months confined at the Camarillo State Hospital. After his release in January 1947, he returned to New York and had a particularly productive period, leading a quintet that featured the trumpeter Miles Davis. He was in peak form during the next few years, even as he resumed being an addict.
In 1949, Parker realized a dream he had long had, to record with a string section. The “Bird With Strings” sessions would be his most comm-ercially successful recordings. While some of his fans considered these dates to be too restrictive and the music rather conservative, emphasizing swing standards rather than new bop originals, Parker initially loved being in the setting.
This present collection has all of the music from the first two “Bird With Strings” sessions, a couple of small group numbers and a final string date that also includes a big band. Parker began his string project with a true classic, Just Friends. This recording is one of the few where every note (and there are many) is perfect. Bird’s improvisation is simply stunning, creating some brilliant variations and fresh ideas; note that the brief oboe spot is played by future record producer Mitch Miller. Parker plays beautifully on the other selections from this session, even if he sticks fairly close to the themes; his If I Should Lose You is the second most famous performance from this date. Listeners who were confused by bebop at its most radical (asking “Where’s the melody?”) found little to complain about with these performances. Jimmy Carroll’s arrangements for the five strings, harp and oboe are straightforward and lush, forming a backdrop for Parker’s distinctive tone, while Stan Freeman contributes a few interludes on piano.
My Melancholy Baby is quite a bit different. Taken from a reunion session by Parker and Gillespie, it teams Bird for the only time on record with pianist Thelonious Monk and offers drummer Buddy Rich an opportunity to play with the giants of bop; bassist Curly Russell is excellent in support. This version of the vintage dixieland standard is both a bit tongue-in-cheek and delightful.
For the second “Bird And Strings” set, the backing group has the addition of a French horn and the violin section expanding from three to five. Joe Lippman’s arrangements are similar to Carroll’s in that they are as suited to middle-of-the-road pop music as they are to jazz. This time around pianist Bernie Leighton and Edwin C. Brown on oboe provide the interludes between the ensembles and Parker. One’s chief attention is focused on Bird, who is in particularly fine form on Dancing In The Dark (which has a similar framework as Just Friends) and Out Of Nowhere. In general Parker is a bit more adventurous on this date than the initial string session and he had settled more into the role of playing above the strings.
Star Eyes is taken from a reunion session with Parker’s former sideman Miles Davis, one of only two that took place after Davis’ departure in December 1948. Bird’s playing on this song (which was introduced by Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra in 1943) is so memorable that Star Eyes became a jazz standard due to this recording.
By 1952 when the final “Bird With Strings” date took place, the concept had run its course. Parker had performed live with a small string section on a few occasions during 1950-51 but found the setting rather confining. Because the strings could not improvise, if the arrangement called for Bird to take two choruses, that situation could not be spontaneously changed. Parker was so frustrated that he soon chose to return to play exclusively with a more convent-ional combo in clubs. The last of his record dates with strings differs from his first two in that the string section (which unfortunately has always been unidentified for this session) was expanded and is joined not only by flute, oboe and a rhythm section (with pianist Lou Stein) but a harp and ten horns. There are occasional short spots for a trumpeter (most likely Bernie Privin) and, although Bird is again the main voice on these selections, the horns make the music much more jazz-oriented than previously. The uptempo version of Lover that closes this set of Mellow Bird is particularly memorable.
Charlie Parker was only 31 at the time of his final set with strings but his career and life were nearing its end. He became increasingly unreliable, he remained a heroin addict and, although he could play brilliantly when inspired (including at the famous 1953 Massey Hall concert with Gillespie and Bud Powell), his mental state became increasingly shaky. His body finally gave out on 12 March 1955 at the age of 34. But although his life was short, Charlie Parker’s legacy lives on through his recordings and the tremendous impact that he made on jazz.
– author of eight jazz books including Jazz On Record 1917-76, Bebop, Swing and Trumpet Kings
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