PARKER, Charlie: Mellow Bird

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'Mellow Bird' Original Recordings 1949-1952

Charlie \Bird" Parker was one of the most significant jazzmusicians of all time.  He was sucha brilliant soloist on alto that even his throwaway phrases became thevocabulary of jazz.  Bird couldplay perfectly coherent solos at ridiculous tempos and he was very advancedharmonically yet was also a masterful blues player.  His prime period (1944-54) was relatively brief yet he cameup with so many innovative ideas during his short life that he permanently changedthe mainstream of jazz from swing to bebop, transforming a music that wasconsidered part of the entertainment field into one universally thought of asan art form.

Born in Kansas City, Kansas, on 29 August 1920, CharlieParker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As a young teenager he began playing the alto sax and dropped out ofschool at fourteen to become a professional musician even though he was notready yet.  After being essentiallylaughed offstage a few times, he spent several months one summer working hard,woodshedding on his horn, studying Lester Young records and building up hismastery of the fundamentals.  Bythe time the summer was over, Parker was strong enough to impress his fellowmusicians.  He worked with JayMcShann's Orchestra off and on during 1937-42, making his recording debut,visiting New York with the band and jamming with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie forthe first time.

Parker and Gillespie worked together frequently during1943-45, as sidemen with the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine Orchestras, on 52ndStreet and in a series of recordings in 1945 that stunned the jazz world.  Their brilliant techniques, adventurousideas and knack for improvising over the chords of songs were at firstconsidered quite controversial. However within a couple years they were hugely influential, moving jazzfar beyond Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

Parkers' life was adversely affected by his addiction toheroin, which he had acquired as a teenager.  In the fall of 1945, he traveled with Gillespie to LosAngeles, introducing bebop to a West Coast audience that proved largelyindifferent to the music.  Althoughhe made some classic recordings while in Los Angeles, the lack of a reliabledrug connection resulted in Bird trying to fight his addiction by drinkingexcessively.  He suffered a mentalbreakdown and spent six months confined at the Camarillo State Hospital.  After his release in January 1947, hereturned to New York and had a particularly productive period, leading aquintet that featured the trumpeter Miles Davis.  He was in peak form during the next few years, even as heresumed being an addict.

In 1949, Parker realized a dream he had long had, to recordwith a string section.  The "BirdWith Strings" sessions would be his most comm-ercially successfulrecordings.  While some of his fansconsidered these dates to be too restrictive and the music rather conservative,emphasizing swing standards rather than new bop originals, Parker initiallyloved being in the setting.

This present collection has all of the music from the firsttwo "Bird With Strings" sessions, a couple of small group numbers and a finalstring date that also includes a big band.  Parker began his string project with a true classic, JustFriends.  This recording is one ofthe few where every note (and there are many) is perfect.  Bird's improvisation is simplystunning, creating some brilliant variations and fresh ideas; note that thebrief oboe spot is played by future record producer Mitch Miller.  Parker plays beautifully on the otherselections from this session, even if he sticks fairly close to the themes; hisIf I Should Lose You is the second most famous performance from this date.  Listeners who were confused by bebop atits most radical (asking "Where's the melody?") found little to complain aboutwith these performances.  JimmyCarroll's arrangements for the five strings, harp and oboe are straightforwardand lush, forming a backdrop for Parker's distinctive tone, while Stan Freemancontributes a few interludes on piano.

My Melancholy Baby is quite a bit different.  Taken from a reunion session by Parkerand Gillespie, it teams Bird for the only time on record with pianistThelonious Monk and offers drummer Buddy Rich an opportunity to play with thegiants of bop; bassist Curly Russell is excellent in support.  This version of the vintage dixielandstandard is both a bit tongue-in-cheek and delightful.

For the second "Bird And Strings" set, the backing group hasthe addition of a French horn and the violin section expanding from three tofive.  Joe Lippman's arrangementsare similar to Carroll's in that they are as suited to middle-of-the-road popmusic as they are to jazz.  Thistime around pianist Bernie Leighton and Edwin C. Brown on oboe provide theinterludes between the ensembles and Parker.  One's chief attention is focused on Bird, who is inparticularly fine form on Dancing In The Dark (which has a similar framework asJust Friends) and Out Of Nowhere. In general Parker is a bit more adventurous on this date than theinitial string session and he had settled more into the role of playing abovethe strings.

Star Eyes is taken from a reunion session with Parker'sformer sideman Miles Davis, one of only two that took place after Davis'departure in December 1948.  Bird'splaying on this song (which was introduced by Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra in 1943)is so memorable that Star Eyes became a jazz standard due to this recording.

By 1952 when the final "Bird With Strings" date took place,the concept had run its course. Parker had performed live with a small string section on a few occasionsduring 1950-51 but found the setting rather confining.  Because the strings could notimprovise, if the arrangement called for Bird to take two choruses, thatsituation could not be spontaneously changed.  Parker was so frustrated that he soon chose to return toplay exclusively with a more convent-ional combo in clubs.  The last of his record dates withstrings differs from his first two in that the string section (which unfortunatelyhas always been unidentified for this session) was expanded and is joined notonly by flute, oboe and a rhythm section (with pianist Lou Stein) but a harpand ten horns.  There areoccasional short spots for a trumpeter (most likely Bernie Privin) and,although Bird is again the main voice on these selections, the horns make themusic much more jazz-oriented than previously.  The uptempo version of Lover that closes this set of MellowBird is particularly memorable.

Charlie Parker was only 31 at the time of his final set withstrings but his career and life were nearing its end.  He became increasingly unreliable, he remained a heroinaddict and, although he could play brilliantly when inspired (including at thefamous 1953 Massey Hall concert with Gillespie and Bud Powell), his mentalstate became increasingly shaky. His body finally gave out on 12 March 1955 at the age of 34.  But although his life was short,Charlie Parker's legacy lives on through his recordings and the tremendousimpact that he made on jazz.

Scott Yanow

- author of eight jazz books including Jazz On Record1917-76, Bebop, Swing and Trumpet Kings

Disc: 1
1 Just Friends
2 Everything Happens to Me
3 April in Paris
4 Summertime
5 I Don't Know What Time It Was
6 If I Should Lose You
7 My Melancholy Baby
8 Dancing in the Dark
9 Out of Nowhere
10 Laura
11 East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)
12 They Can't Take That Away from Me
13 Easy to Love
14 I'm in the Mood for Love
15 I'll Remember April
16 Star Eyes
17 Temptation
18 Autumn in New York
19 Stella by Starlight
20 Lover
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