It’s easy to recommend this new two disc set, where the miracle that was Charlie Parker is on glorious display again and again.
Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes. Verve.
By Michael Ullman
Decades ago, I and many other collectors bought the ten disc set called Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve. The notes proudly proclaimed: “This is the complete and definitive collection of Charlie Parker’s work for Verve.” The collection has been a joy to listen to ever since, but it turns out that those claims about it being ‘definitive” were inaccurate. Last year, The Complete Charlie Parker with Strings was issued on a two disc set: the CDs contain 17 new takes and fragments. Now, more than sixty years after they were recorded, we are given an unexpected gift of Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes, which contains 58 previously unknown performances from the most brilliant and inventive improviser jazz has ever produced.
Where did these takes come from? How did they become separated from the previously issued tapes? Where were they all these years? And how did they resurface? Annotator Phil Schaap’s notes are opaque to the point of irritation about these and other fascinating questions. (Buyer beware: the copy of the set I purchased from Amazon contained only the first two pages of Schaap’s essay on the tunes in the collection. I had to ask the Verve publicist for the complete text.) As for head-scratchers, here is Schaap on the relationship in the studio between Parker and producer Norman Granz, the man who recorded the saxophonist between 1946 and 1954 in a wide variety of contexts: “Happenstance is responsible for more than one of the Bird-Granz ensemble designs. Whatever the process, both Charlie Parker and Norman Granz were all but silent as to how the music was selected and prepared for issue. The cohesiveness of this large body of high art demonstrates, nevertheless, long term planning and determined implementation.” How do you reconcile ‘long range planning’ with ‘happenstance’? Here and elsewhere, Schaap’s explanations are inscrutable.
Despite the essay’s obsessive detail about the specific going-ons in the sessions, Schaap does little to illuminate the larger questions raised by this treasure trove. Nonetheless, the music is obviously authentic, the sound of the recordings (to my ears) stunningly accurate and clear. One learns a lot from alternate takes; the brilliant ways Parker re-interprets a melody in a series of aborted takes provides valuable insights. I can’t imagine taking pleasure in anyone else’s version of such questionable song material as “Tico Tico,” but, even though Parker plays the trite tune repeatedly, he is never less than refreshing. He messes up sometimes: after he stops one take of “Tico Tico,” we hear him apologize: “That was beautiful too. I’m sorry.” It was beautiful. We are all sorry.
Having listened to Charlie Parker’s complete works on Dial and Savoy, where takes are brought screechingly to a halt by the producer, I am impressed to at the extent to which Parker is in charge of these recordings. It’s he who stops a take, comments to his musicians, and starts up again. He is never impatient, not even with himself. He leads a septet through a series of his tunes originally named, if one can call it that, “Tune X” and “Tune Y,” and “Tune Z.” These are awkward pieces, and the band hasn’t mastered them. Still, Parker persists. We are given new takes of a fast blues entitled, not too cleverly,”Blues: Fast,” two alternates to “My Little Suede Shoes,” and another two stabs at “Tico Tico.” In every take, the music seems to be just pouring out of Parker, whose tone is bright and clear, his mastery of his instrument complete.
His is a horn of plenty. In the previous Verve set, I found Parker’s playing on the various takes of Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” astonishing for a variety of reasons. The first complete take is the seventh go-round. The piece’s spiky arrangement, for mixed chorus and a nonet, comes from Gil Evans. Granz may have been accommodating Parker’s interest in contemporary classical music — the result, at first, is nightmarish. The chorus keeps coming in at the wrong place and in the wrong tempo, the horn writing is in a bizarre tangle with the chorus’s glib vocalizing, and nothing hangs together. At first Parker doesn’t even play. Then something nearly miraculous happens. The horn writing is more or less eliminated, and Parker starts to solo even in takes that are already so flawed that he knew they couldn’t be issued. It’s as if he couldn’t hold himself back. In Unheard Bird there’s a similar experience: we hear an all-star quintet, featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell, and drummer Buddy Rich struggle through the partial takes leading up to the released master of “Bloomdido.” At first, Monk hardly sounds like himself performing the introduction, and Buddy Rich dribbles to a close. It amazes me how quickly it all then came together.
It’s easy to recommend this new two disc set, where the miracle that was Charlie Parker is repeatedly on glorious display. What jazz fan wouldn’t want to hear Bird rejigger versions of a blues tune? The recording includes the originally issued takes as well as truncated takes and alternate versions that led up to the masters, so not everything on this set will be a surprise to a collector’s ears. But so what? There is more new music from Parker at his most astounding here than I ever expected to encounter again in this lifetime.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.