What better time than Thanksgiving week to rave about Bird and a feast. Bird, of course, is alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and the feast is Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings, an eight-CD set that was released in 2000. I finally grabbed a copy after years spent listening to the master takes in one form or another and was blown away by the package. Like you, I used to think that alternate takes of Parker's Savoy and Dial dates were for neurotics and fussy completists. Not so. If you don't already own this box, do yourself a favor and consider treating yourself to an early holiday gift. It's a miraculous set.
First, the sound of the remastering and the quality of the multi-author liner notes are revealing and remarkable. But more to the point, the set—with all of the alternate takes and false starts—allows you to hear a double evolution: Parker developing as an artist over a four-year period and Parker working through a range of ideas on individual songs that would change jazz's direction.
The Savoy and Dial studio dates are without a doubt the most fascinating of all Parker's recordings. Parker's Clef and Norgran studio recordings for Norman Granz that would follow (starting in December 1947) also are rich and illuminating. But they are largely American Songbook interpretations and aren't nearly as urgent, complex or deeply anchored in the blues.
In the jazz world of the 1940s, Parker's jaw-dropping ability to play fast and flawlessly, inventing an endless pattern of blues lines along the way, was a record company's dream. But grinding away at this enormous gift was Parker's chronic irresponsibility—a flaw exacerbated by his growing addiction to heroin.
Parker came to Savoy in September 1944 as part of guitarist Tiny Grimes' quintet. He recorded for Guild in February 1945, singles that were later aquired by Savoy and issued as part of this set. Then in November 1945, Parker recorded as a leader for the first time on a session that produced KoKo, a searing burst of creativity based on the chord changes to Cherokee. In late December 1945, Parker recorded as a sideman with pianist and session leader Slim Gaillard for Bel-Tone, a West Coast label.
After the 1945 holidays, Parker and Gillespie headed out to Los Angeles for several weeks to play at Billy Berg's in Hollywood. But their run failed to leave a deep enough impression to sustain them out there. When Gillespie left for New York, a rattled Parker could not be found and remained behind. It was during this period on the West Coast that Parker was discovered by Ross Russell, the owner of Dial, who signed him to the label and recorded him as a leader starting in February 1946.
But Parker's drug use grew progressively worse, and following a July 1946 recording session for Dial, Parker returned to his Los Angeles hotel and accidentaly set fire to the room. Then he came down to the lobby in just his underwear and sat on a car just outside the hotel. Arrested, Parker was sentenced to six months at Camarillo State Hospital. When he emerged in January 1947, he began to record for Dial again, heading back to New York in the spring.
Upon his return, Parker formed a quintet with trumpeter Miles Davis and in May 1947 began recording again for Savoy. In August 1947 he recorded on tenor sax for a session led by Davis—two ruses suggested by Savoy's owner Herman Lubinsky to mask Parker's identity from Russell of Dial, who had threatened to sue Lubinsky over his use of Parker in defiance of his Dial contract.
In December 1947, Russell traveled to New York and recorded a long list of tracks with Parker in advance of a pending recording ban. Union musicians did indeed strike in January 1948, halting all recording until the fall, when the labor dispute was settled. Parker resumed recording for Savoy in September 1948, his final session for the label.
This box represents that story—set to music. While many jazz fans have the Savoy or Dial tracks in pieces or own the master takes depending on the CD, the alternate takes and false starts are essential parts of the creative tale. I've come to believe that every musical sketch, idea and error on this set is critical to understanding Parker's artistic development and sense of control. The struggle to create this music—to come to grips with its complexity and the dexterity needed to pull it off—is told in full here. Every track is mandatory for a full understanding of Parker's gift.
You also get to visit with some lesser-known Parker gems like Perhaps, Stupendous and Bluebird. In addition, the set's liner notes have been penned by a fleet of authoritative writers. Authors in order include Orrin Keepnews, Ira Gitler, James Patrick, Bill Kirchner and Bob Porter, whose Q&A interview with Savoy producer Teddy Reig is invaluable.
This set features Parker as blacksmith, pounding away with hammer on anvil to forge a new form of jazz that continues to be played today. What's most remarkable is that no one since has duplicated Parker's resounding overhaul of jazz, a feat that remains as exciting now as it was more than 60 years ago. All that music in just four short years.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the eight-CD box Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings here.
JazzWax note: When this box set was released, there was a technical error in disc #4. Specifically, the entire Donna Lee session was in need of pitch correction due to a computer error. I'm told Savoy will replace disc #4 for free with a corrected version. To contact the company for this replacement, go here, click on "contact us" and type "Charlie Parker Box" in the subject line.
JazzWax clip: Here's a lesser-known Parker original for Savoy, Bird Gets the Worm...