Those heroes and legends who survive in the electronic world of the '70s must be a hearty lot, their accomplishments so great that they transcend the "bionic" performances of television and appeal to the dulled senses of a contemporary audience.
One such legend is saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, who for three musical generations has exerted an unequalled influence on jazz. The ideas that he introduced have affected, in some way, the playing of nearly every major jazz musician from his time to the present, regardless of their instruments or style of playing. Harmonically, melodically, rhythmically and technically he extended the expressive boundaries of jazz.
The legend of "Bird" is introduced to new listeners and perpetuated for others in a new release, "The Very Best of Bird" (Warner Bros. 2WB3198), that features reissues of the historic recordings that Parker made for Dial Records in 1946and 1947. The two-record set was drawn from a six-volume limited edition released in early June and already a collectors' item.
Warner Brothers has tried to ensure that this record is accorded Very Special status. In addition to the attention generated by the limited edition, the company also commissioned special portraits of Parker (included with "The Very Best") by six famous American artists. The liner notes were written by Ross Russell, the producer of the Dial sessions and author of the book "Bird Lives." For the uninitiated, the notes provide a necessary perspective; for the informed listener, they are an invaluable aide in interpreting the music. Russell's personal reminiscences and his minute descriptions of the sessions are particularly powerful and illuminate the qualities which have made Bird the archetypal jazz legend. The notes paint a picture of solitary genius beset by personal woes and tormented by drugs - troubles from which Parker wrenched the exquisite musical phrases which transformed jazz. Russell writes that during the recording of "Lover Man," he "held Bird to keep him from spinning off mike during the performance - he had swallowed six bennies in a Dixie cup of bottled water before the sessions began." ("Lover Man" is not included because of Parker's dissatisfaction with his performance.)
The material on "The Very Best" features a dazzling display of musicianship by Parker as well as such jazz giants as Miles Davis, Max Roach, Erroll Garner and Barney Kessel. The album is in three sections: the first sessions for Dial, recorded in California in the spring and summer of 1946; the sessions after Parker's nervous collapse and recuperation, during the winter of 1947: and the New York recording in the fall of 1947. Because of the differing professional and personal environments in which Parker was playing during these times, different features of his music are highlighted.
The first dial recording demonstrate Parker's essential expressive abilities. Because he was working with "pickup" groups (musicians hired for the specific session), rehearsal time was minimal and the stregth of these selections is primarily in Parker's sheer presence and power. His lyricism and soft, rich tones are the guiding force in "Yardbird Suite" and his angular phrasing is prominent in Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." The solo in the classic "Ornithology," with its short, clipped phrases followed by extended lines, is almost formal in its delicate construction.
The second set of recordings, after Parker's release from Camarillo State Hospital, features a more subdued quality reflecting Parker's improved mental and physical condition and his collaboration with the Erroll Garner Trio, an ensemble whose relaxed playing style differed from the intensity of his earlier group. The fire of the first Dial recordings is underplayed and Parker allows himself a wit and introspection that is most effective on "Cool Blues (Hot Blues)" in which he and Garner trade ideas in a subtle conversation.
This period of calm was followed by the brilliance of the New York sessions. Parker was playing, regularly, with a hand-picked group, including Miles Davis (also playing trumpet on the first sessions) and the sophisticated drumming of Max Roach. The precision of this group seemed to inspire Parker and his solos are the most energetic and articulate of this set. Songs such as "My Old Flame" are still Parker showcases, but "Bird Feathers," "Dewey Square," and "Charlie's Wig" dispay a complexity of ensemble playing that is the equal of Parker's intricate solo work.
The one quality common to each of these sessions is the freedom of expression and creativity that had not been heard before Parker. While he did not invent the musical language of jazz, he did new words, phrases, accents and punctuations to its vocabualry - and his saxophone was its voice.