The news of a freshly polished version of the "Famous Alto Break" might not mean much to the general public, but it is the kind of event that triggers seismographic tremors among the legions of Charlie Parker fans out there.
Although the clumsily titled "Break" lasts less than 40 seconds, it's a stunning moment in jazz history documenting Parker's leap from the changes of "A Night in Tunisia" and his spiral into a four-bar cascade of showering notes that blindsided the other musicians in the studio that day. The recording session had to come to a screeching halt while everyone caught his breath and tried to figure out what Parker had just done. They were stunned, and, nearly 60 years later, it is a moment that still startles.
That brief glimpse into the alto saxman's volatile genius is just one of many such flashes of brilliance captured in this incredible, newly remastered eight-disc collection that traces the eruption of bebop in the mid-1940s.
Parker's studio work for the Savoy and Dial labels is legendary. In the four years he recorded for the two labels, Parker completely changed the direction of American music.
And although he shared studio time with such visionary jazzmen as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, John Lewis and Red Callender (to name just a few of the dozens who appear in this marathon boxed set), this is Parker's show, and he rises above them all.
The Savoy and Dial material has been available off and on for years in various packages with varying quality. This newest set, though, marks the last, best collection, having been overseen with loving care by producer Orrin Keepnews and filtered through the finest technological machinery that Savoy's sister corporation, Denon Digital, had to offer.
This massive collection chronicles Parker's early genius with an amazing you-are-there exactitude. There are alternate takes of nearly every title in the collection -- and although "alternate takes" are of interest only to the most nebbishy of jazz scholars, in this case each new rendition captures Parker exploring different musical avenues while his colleagues rush to keep up. Often completely different songs emerge from one take to the next as Parker's ideas explode in the studio like Roman candles.
Fans might argue that Parker's whole brief life was like a Roman candle. Certainly Ken Burns would have liked the metaphor. Though the famed saxophonist played an appropriately prominent role in Burns' bloated Jazz documentary, Burns could find little to do with Parker except to dress him in the threadbare cloak of "tortured genius."
And while Parker's pathetic life as a junkie and a drunk cannot be ignored (it hastened his career and often overshadowed it, as it does here -- most notably on his painfully sloppy "Lover Man" solo), for some fans the tragedy's lip-licking, necrophilic appeal eclipses his music.
Instead, Parker's legacy is better served by repeated listenings of "KoKo," "Ornithology," "Yardbird Suite," "Moose the Mooche," "Relaxin' at Camarillo" and "Now's the Time." Pay attention to the ways he bends tried-and-true blues foundations making them sound fresh on "Buzzy," "Bluebird" and especially "Parker's Mood." Check out how he mines standards such as "Embraceable You" and "How Deep Is the Ocean" searching for uncharted musical water. What Parker was doing with music in the mid-1940s is a lot more compelling than another "tragic artist" rerun.
For the most part, the sound quality is pristine throughout the anthology, but the ride tends to be a little choppy. In an effort to document all that happened in the studio while Parker was performing, everything has been included. Several tracks last less than 30 seconds. Some stop just as Parker is finding a groove, and it can be a frustrating listen at times. Obviously, Keepnews and Company were thinking about the historical significance of the anthology as much as they were thinking about its ambiance.
Those who worship at Parker's altar will have no qualms about buying this set in spite of such obstacles. Others might be scared away by the collection's size or cost. There's no need to be. What old fans know -- and new fans are likely to find out -- is that Parker's dexterity and speed on the saxophone are justifiably famous, but his ideas came at an equally intense velocity.
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