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The Gospel of Charles 

Charlie Parker’s bebop nativity, unabridged

Wednesday, Nov 1 2000
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Charlie Parker’s mid-‘40s sessions are the bop New Testament; everything after is just commentary. The Jesus role of course belongs to saxophonist ”Yardbird“ Parker, whose eight-CD The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (1944-1948) (not omitting his crucial 1945 Guild and Musicraft sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and some less canonical Comet and Bel-Tone work with Red Norvo and Slim Gaillard the same year) documents the establishment of a radical new religion, which many called ”bebop“ and which this brilliant junkie, who flamed out in 1955, called ”music.“ Flipping easy swing rhythms on their wigs, growing new harmonic twists and beating out heart-attack tempos, bebop was strong coffee for an America wound up from two World Wars and not quite ready to relax.

This boxed jazz testament can claim some advantages over the Judeo-Christian one. We can follow a god at work -- not just the filtered and sanctioned highlights of his mission, but the actual process that changed the way music was perceived. We meet dubious apostles, flawed idols. We hear how dogma was established, how heresy was assimilated.

Naturally, this box isn’t for everybody. Even the period hits, such as ”Now‘s the Time“ and ”Ornithology,“ now ring like exotic chant to ears lulled by ”contemporary“ jazz. For non-completists, Rhino issued a great two-disc Parker compilation a few years back, and plenty of master-takes collections exist. Most listeners won’t want to compare 12 tries at ”Marmaduke,“ any more than they‘d want to read a dozen 19th-century German commentaries on the Book of John.

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But for historians and jazz zealots, it’s exciting as hell. They‘ll be glad to have all the sessions in chronological order (Parker alternated between Savoy and Dial dates, which have previously been collected separately), so they won’t have to bounce from fragment to fragment of CDs and LPs for a continuous narrative. And beyond the actual tracks, many of which have been previously hard to find, a real bonus is in hearing new ideas gradually take root in a wide range of minds.

The most obvious metamorphosis is that of Miles Davis: The 19-year-old Juilliard punk is blurry and tentative in November 1945, but cocky enough to hire his mentor as a sideman less than two years later. Drummer ”Big“ Sid Catlett, straight out of swing bands like Benny Goodman‘s, drops bebop ”bombs“ on ”Shaw ’Nuff“ like he‘s been doing it all his life, and adds a whispering groove all his own over which Parker and Gillespie plain sail. Less comfortable is Erroll Garner (in 1947 still years short of being a famous soloist), cleaving out butcher-block piano chords and stride-era make-do’s behind Parker‘s flights.

The Los Angeles Dial sessions explode all myths that the local studs, gathered here from around the country, suffered from East Coast envy. Kid drummer Roy Porter whomps with contagious energy. Tenorman Lucky Thompson hoards his swing-era vibrato, but matches Parker for invention and sheer balls on ”Yardbird Suite.“ Wardell Gray’s tenor improvisations on ”Relaxin‘ at Camarillo“ start hesitant, then on successive takes get smoother, with only a hint of old-fashioned tremor. Guitarist Barney Kessel, later king of the session rats, sounds like a maniacal cuz to Charlie Christian. And Dodo Marmarosa carves clean, mean, ultramodern piano -- though he virtually disappeared not many years after, he shows serious tusks here.

You get a good stack of paper with this box. Orrin Keepnews, an archbishop among reissue producers, has penned another wryly elegant introductory essay. Ira Gitler, who’s been writing about bop since the Cretaceous Age, offers a sheaf of Yardbird reminiscences. James Patrick and Bill Kirchner delve into details of the Savoy and Dial sessions respectively, the former‘s dissertation having been revised from a 1978 Savoy LP box. And it was a good call to reproduce, from the same box, Bob Porter’s interview with Savoy producer Teddy Reig, a true Manhattan character. Sample: Bird has horn trouble during a session, has to visit his repairman. Porter: ”You went with him?“ Reig: ”You think I‘d leave Charlie Parker alone in midtown? What am I, crazy?“

A carp: In sequencing the tracks, the producers chose to present all the master takes of individual sessions together, then the alternates, so you have to mess with your CD programming to hear the full evolution of a tune. The incomplete take of ”KoKo“ isn’t even on the same disc as the master take. This is wrong. But the sound is good, featuring the kind of crisp dynamics in favor these days. If you think there‘s too much bass for ’40s authenticity, roll it off.

Your friends and significant others will wonder why you need this bulky package. They should understand: Religion is a matter of faith, not reason.

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