Saturday, January 31, 2009


A couple of times a year I rediscover the music of Charlie Parker. I mean, I know that he was a genius, and probably the greatest improviser jazz has known - that's pretty much a given for anyone into jazz. But when I go back to his music every six months or so, I'm always surprised, even shocked, all over again. Parker's music is unbelievable in the literal sense - it's hard to imagine that someone could improvise with such depth at such speed.

When I first heard Bird as a teenager, I was highly impressed, but didn't know enough about music to understand what he was doing. As my musical knowledge and skills increased, Parker's music started to make more sense. ("Oh, that's why he played an F natural and E flat over a D7 chord!") In my maturity, however, and as I have developed a certain amount of ability as a jazz improviser myself, I'm back to not understanding Bird again. I mean, now I understand what he played and why he played it, but I don't understand how he was able to conceive and execute it as fast and cleanly as he did.

Bird's improvisational ability stemmed from natural talent (at the genius level) and total preparation stemming from incessant practicing in his youth. This talent and preparation led to a remarkable level of consistency. It's not just Bird's acknowledged masterpieces that are incredible, it's almost all of his music. There are a few recordings that show the effects of Parker's over-indulgence of stimulants of various types, but the rest of his output is almost all consistently stunning. The other evening I listened to the 1946 "Moose the Mooche"/"Yardbird Suite" session, including all of the alternate takes. The level of invention by Bird is remarkable - any of the takes could have been the issued masters as far as his solos go. And the plethora of live recordings that have come to light since Parker's death reinforce this - he could casually toss off masterpiece after masterpiece at a jam session or on a nightclub stage, night after night.

Two live recordings give us a glimpse of Bird's mind at work. On a 1953 nightclub recording (with Mingus and Bud Powell) of his blues, "Cheryl," he is in a quoting mood. When most jazz musicians throw in a quote during an improvised solo, it is for humorous effect - they play a clever quote and the audience laughs. But Bird quotes both Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (the opening bassoon solo) and Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" cadenza. How many musicians of any genre or era would know both of these? The other recording is from an evening in 1951 when Parker sat in with the Woody Herman big band. Bird didn't have any charts, he just improvised over Herman's arrangements, taking over all of the usual solo spots. The recording of "Four Brothers" from this gig is not one of Parker's best recordings, but it is very revealing. When it's time for him to solo, he wails until the bridge, then realizes that the tune goes into some distant (from the tonic), unusual harmony at that point. He only manages to play a few notes during that first bridge, but listens intently. The second bridge is not much better, but he catches more of the changes each chorus. By the fifth time the bridge comes around, he's got it, and soars through it. It's extremely interesting to hear him learning the changes on the stand.

Listening to Parker's music takes attention. If you are not really attending to it, it just sounds like competent mainstream/modern jazz, especially since Parker more or less invented the style. But careful, attentive listening reveals an amazing musical world, as fresh as when it was created.

From his studio recordings, here are half a dozen of my favorites:

"KoKo" (Savoy, 1945) - Nothing like this exsisted in jazz before this. Bird's playing is breathtakingly fast, but controlled and inventive throughout. This one must have taken the tops of listeners' heads off at the time.

"Embraceable You" (Dial, 1947) - Parker barely touches George Gershwin's melody. He starts with a little six-note motive and builds the entire solo (with great subtlety) from that.

"Klact-oveeseds-tene" (Dial, 1947) - This improvisation begins with some oddly spaced, random-sounding notes and builds from there; it doesn't really make sense until it's over, then you think back on it and think, "Wow - that's where he was going."

"Parker's Mood" (Savoy, 1948) - One of the greatest blues improvisations of all time. Eloquent and heartbreaking.

"Just Friends" (Verve, 1949) - The "Bird With Strings" recordings are downplayed by jazz purists, but the improvising on this is as good as anything he did.

"Confirmation" (Verve, 1953) - Parker's only studio recording of his greatest composition, an ingenious mixture of the expected and unexpected. As his personal life became more and more chaotic during his last years, his playing acheived a calm, masterly assurance.

Bird died in 1955 at the age of 34. The doctor who signed the death certificate estimated his age at 55.

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