Charlie Parker was fond of vocalist Dave Lambert. And who wasn't? In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lambert was adored by bop musicians for his hip, modern singing style and relentlessly energetic personality. So when he was asked in the spring of 1953 to write vocal arrangements for an upcoming Parker recording date, Lambert barely could contain himself. Norman Granz would be producing and Gil Evans would be writing the musical arrangements and conducting. The session was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the ambitious, experimental singer rolled up his sleeves and set to work.
But when tape started to roll on May 25, 1953, it became clear to everyone in the studio that Lambert's vocal charts were too ambitious. Instead of writing for a small group of singers, Lambert scored for 12. Perhaps he wanted to impress cool school titan Gil Evans. Or maybe he wanted to match or top the famed Parker With Strings date recorded in 1949. Whatever the reason, Lambert's vocal writing certainly was interesting but ultimately over the top. The singers on the date struggled, and upward of nine takes were needed on each track.
Hal McKusick is one of the last surviving musicians from that date. Hal played played clarinet in Gil Evans' ensemble of four woodwinds and French horn. Yesterday, in Part 1 of my essay on this unusual Parker session, Hal offered a theory on why the date fell short of expectations. Today, in Part 2, Hal shares additional details and reflects on why a fourth song wasn't recorded that day:
JazzWax: What was it like playing with Charlie Parker on this session?
Hal McKusick: Fantastic. It was one of the most precious moments in my career, being close to the musician I admired most. Bird could play with anyone—strings, vocalists, it didn’t matter. You could put just a tuba in the room, and Bird would play beautifully with him.
But there were only so many takes of a song Bird or anyone could record before becoming frustrated, especially when the problem had nothing to do with him or the musicians. Bird was always a gentleman, and he liked Dave, which is why you hear him calling for additional takes. He could hear the problems, knew the session was having trouble and wanted Norman [Granz] to have solid master tracks.
JW: So Bird must have sensed the session wasn't coming together.
HM: Oh that was clear from the start. To keep Bird focused and relaxed, Gil put a bottle of vodka behind the heavy curtains that lined the walls and told Bird about it. At one point, during a break, Bird went searching for the jug. He went behind the heavy curtains, and you could see his round form feeling his way along. Then you saw his form behind the curtain pause when he discovered the bottle. He was there for about a minute.
When Bird was done, instead of going back the way he came in, he kept moving around the room, inside the curtains, hunting for an opening, which took a while. The guys in the woodwind section remained respectful but we were hysterical inside. Finally, Bird burst out through an opening, and the session continued.
JW: Gil Evans' writing for the woodwinds on the intro to If I Love Again is blistering. Did the ensemble rehearse that?
HM: Rehearse? No. You never rehearsed for a record date back then. You were hired because you could sight-read charts cold and play them perfectly the first time. If you look at the personnel, you had the best session musicians on that date. These guys didn’t make mistakes. Plus a rhythm section of Mingus, Tony Aless on piano, and Max [Roach], whose brush work was great and remains overlooked on there.
Back in the 1950s, top record producers didn’t have time for musicians to rehearse. They didn't want to go into overtime because overtime meant money they didn't want to spend. Besides, most of the musicians on these dates had to leave by a specific time to make other recording sessions. You came in, the parts were on the music stands, you sat down and went to work. I never rehearsed for a single record date, except for some of the tracks on my Jazz Workshop album for RCA.
JW: Was Bird distracted by the Dave Lambert Singers' vocalese style of singing?
HM: No way. Bird blew through everything. Every take was a beaut. The vocalists were trying to get it together, and Dave was struggling. He'd rehearse them the best he could in between takes to get them on track. Simplicity would have been better for Dave—a unison line with fewer singers rather than so many harmonies. It was too ambitious. The vocals wound up stepping all over Gil’s instrumental charts—but not Bird’s solos.
I think Dave knew the charts were a mistake. But there was nothing he could do about it once we started. They could have removed the vocals completely, of course. Actually, I’m surprised Norman and Gil didn’t at least try a take or two without them. We must have been running out of time, and without the vocals in place, Norman wouldn't have had the commercial effect he wanted. But just the instrumentals with Bird on top probably would have made for better listening today.
JW: On the alternate takes, when Norman announces the numbers, he says the word “speed.” What did that mean?
HM: Back then, when a producer said “speed,” that was the engineer’s cue to hit the button on the tape recorder to start recording. By the time the musicians began playing a few seconds later, the tape-recorder reels would be up to speed.
JW: Rumor has it that there was supposed to be a fourth tune recorded that day. True?
HM: I don’t know. But a fourth tune would have made sense. Four tracks were the norm during recording sessions to cover both sides of two 78 rpm records. Three tracks is odd. But those three took so long to record that day—false starts, alternate takes and breaks. The session was probably over on the clock before we could record the fourth song. When you ran over the three hours of time customarily used to record, the producer had to spend more money. Norman must have decided against this.
JW: Did you see a fourth arrangement?
HM: As I think back, I don’t recall seeing a fourth chart on the music stands that day. Maybe Gil and Dave hadn’t finished it. Or maybe it was supposed to be recorded on another day with more arrangements. Since Norman wasn’t exactly thrilled about the first day’s work, I suppose there was little incentive to bring us back in to record.
And that's what Hal saw back in 1953. In the final analysis, these three odd tracks are always better than I expect but never as good as they should have been. Yet there's something about imperfection that's human and appealing.
Clearly, these tunes were quirky, sappy and shamelessly commercial. Nevertheless, you still hear Parker blowing line after beautiful line trying to help save Lambert's noble but misguided effort. And for that alone, this session is more than just another record date. What you have here is evidence of Parker's ability to overcome even the thinnest musical setting—and his character as he stands up for a dear friend in creative trouble.
JazzWax tracks: If you download Charlie Parker: Big Band or
copy the CD's songs onto your computer, try doing what I did: Once you import all the alternate takes, false starts and masters, take a minute to arrange the songs so they appear in order—just as the session occurred that day. (The song titles at iTunes indicate the takes, and they're listed on the CD.)
Doing so lets you hear the date's full dramatic story, in chronological order. It's like gathering the loose pages of a short story and stapling them together. Listen chronologically and you'll hear Max's accelerated brush work, Bird's "one more, right now, right quick" push for additional takes, and a gaggle of too many hip singers struggling to swing in tune.