To say that a musician's work lives on after his or her death has become the most trite of expressions. But in the case of saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker the evidence is overwhelming.
Following Parker's death in 1955 at age 34, pianist Lennie Tristano said, "If Charlie could have invoked the plagiarism laws, he could have sued every jazz musician who made a record in the last 10 years." Trumpeter Red Rodney, who worked in Parker's quintet for three years, expresses a more benevolent view on the just-released "One Night in Washington--Charlie Parker with the Orchestra" (Elektra Musician E1-60019). "He was the father of us all," says Rodney, briefly recalling Parker's influence at the conclusion of the album, remarks that form a personal coda to this exceptional collection of previously unreleased material.
It's possible to compile an unprecedented library of Parker's recordings using nothing more than the numerous reissues released over the past several years. In addition to his extensive, ground-breaking Dial and Savoy sessions, listeners now have ready access to Parker's genius in a variety of roles--with or without strings on Verve, in concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus and Max Roach on Prestige, working with a relatively obscure sextet on Arista-Savoy, at Carnegie Hall with Red Rodney and others on Almanac. The list continues to grow.
But "One Night in Washington" captures Parker--for an all-too-brief 28 minutes--in a very different context. It's February 1953, and he's in Washington at Club Kavakos performing with a volatile big band comprised of local musicians. He's unrehearsed but not unprepared for this concert, which was recorded and preserved by Bill Potts and restored to excellent sound quality by engineer extraordinaire Jack Towers.
The arrangements--by Potts, Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan, the orchestra's musical director Joe Timer and others--are often crisp, forceful and challenging, full of tricky modulations, sudden exclamations and powerful ensemble passages. If Parker's musical instincts ever were put to a test in the presence of recording equipment, this has to be it. Here he is out of his element, covering unfamiliar territory with a big band, yet there are precious few signs of it.
There's nothing the least bit tentative about his approach to "Fine and Dandy." He roars through several choruses, unfurling along the way--as Potts points out in his liner notes--the first of several quotes from, of all things, Stravinsky's "Petrouchka."
Potts's own arrangement of "Light Green" is another example of how quickly Parker acclimated himself. Again he quotes freely, but it's his phrasing, those sharp, angular, immensely agile lines, that holds your attention. There are similar moments on "Thou Swell" and especially on "Willis," in which Parker also proves to be in top form.
The latter, for example, develops into a typically robust Potts arrangement after a rather subdued and melodic opening. The sheer intensity of Parker's improvisations, the electricity that charges his choruses, is particularly evident in this commanding performance.
What's more, even when Parker trips up, the results can be revealing. On the medley "Something to Remember You By/Blue Room," he reprises the first tune instead of moving on to the second with the rest of the band. Parker holds out, and soon the entire ensemble returns to the fold: As always his instincts prevailed. This won't be the last we'll hear from Charlie Parker, or from Bill Potts, for that matter. But this album is a small gem, a recording that backs up claims of graffiti artists everywhere in the '50s: "Bird Lives."
Another worthwhile posthumous album issued recently is "Last Dance" by the Blue Mitchell Quintet (JAM 5002). The album features a 1977 quintet headed up by bassist John Heard and pianist Victor Feldman, both of whom are capable of creating a comfortable setting for Mitchell's warm and unencumbered delivery. His balladry often is hauntingly beautiful on this album, constructed of distinct and poignant phrases that grow bolder at times but never lose their definition or impact.
Mitchell's album is one of five records released by the local Jam label in its mid-price series. Each album retails for several dollars below the average cost of other jazz albums. The others include those by Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin, Michal Urbaniak and John Abercrombie. The Akiyoshi and Tabackin albums are primarily interesting because they allow each musician to pursue a separate course.