“[Charlie Parker] always filled me with a kind of despair, because he played the way I would have liked to write, and this wasn't possible for me or anyone else. He made poetry seem word-bound.” - P.J. Kavanaugh, The Perfect Stranger.
The American Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman once remarked that aesthetics is for artists what ornithology is for the birds and the unintended reference to Charlie 'Bird' Parker can be usefully appropriated in this context. Parker's major stylistic innovation - improvising a new melody line from the top of the informing chord, rather than the middle - was a logical extension of everything that had happened in jazz over the previous decade. Even though the simultaneous inscription of bebop by different hands suggests this was an evolutionary inevitability, any artistic advance requires a specific and conscious intervention. British saxophonist John Harle has emphasised the astonishing clarity of Parker's tone and his distinctive solo development. Even at its most dazzling, Parker's signature sound was always logical, making light of asymmetrical phrases, idiosyncratically translating bar-lines, adeptly alternating whole-note passages with flurries of semi-quavers, while also tampering with every other parameter of the music - dynamic, attack, timbre - with a joyous arrogance. His premature death at thirty-five spared him the indignity of a middle age given over to formulaic repetition. As Richard Cook and Brian Martin note in their authoritative Encyclopedia of Jazz, “with its emphasis on supreme harmonic virtuosity, bop has become the dominant idiom of modern jazz and Parker's genetic fingerprint is the clearest.”
Apart from the legendary Dean Benedetti's archive of live performances recorded on 78 rpm acetate discs that were distorted by torque and swarf from the cutting-needle, Parker's professional career only lasted for a decade and is enshrined in three main blocks of material, for Savoy (1944-8), Dial (1946-7), and Verve Records (1948-53). Charlie Parker with Strings is in fact the name given to two separate albums released in 1950 on Mercury Records. It is also the title of a 1995 compilation album on Verve containing all the tracks from both the 1950 albums, as well as additional material. Under the auspices of producer Norman Granz, who placed Parker in the context of a small classical string section and a jazz rhythm section, rather than his standard bebop quintet, Parker finally fulfilled his long-held desire to record in a string setting.
Plans were initially made to release the recordings as a ten-inch LP. Sessions from November 1949 yielded the first Charlie Parker with Strings album (Mercury MG-35010), which included six songs, all of which were standards by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin. Parker was accompanied by Stan Freeman on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Buddy Rich on drums. The clearly phallic cover art of Parker literally blowing his own horn was created by David Stone Martin, who illustrated over 400 albums with his crowquill pen, so certainly knew what he was doing. The success of the first album led to additional sessions in July 1950, resulting in a second album, also entitled Charlie Parker with Strings (Mercury MGC-109), which consisted of eight tracks, again all standards. The rhythm line-up also featured Rich and Brown, but Bernie Leighton replaced Freeman on piano. In 1995, Verve reissued these fourteen recordings as Charlie Parker with Strings: Deluxe Edition (Verve 314 523 984-2), wisely avoiding the word 'complete' in the title. Most of the alternates were released here for the first time, and thus are not on the ten CD box set Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve. The CD including an additional ten tracks with Parker and various musicians including Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Roy Haynes, Curly Russell, and Shelley Manne on drums, also accompanied by strings: five date from a Carnegie Hall concert in September 1950; four more from an additional studio session in January, 1952; and the last from Granz's The Jazz Scene limited edition 78 rpm recordings from Carnegie Hall in December, 1947.
After the extraordinary music that Parker recorded for the Savoy and Dial labels in the immediate post-War period, the sessions for Granz mark an inevitable diminuendo. Some controversy still surrounds the reason behind Parker recording only standards, rather than original compositions. Most assumed it was a bid for greater commercial exposure, and certainly Mercury Records did not object to the idea, but biographical sources indicate Parker himself instigated the sessions. In any case, Granz was a passionate and practical and consummate professional, who consistently advocated better treatment for black musicians, and it was he who brought Parker to the attention of the wider audience he craved. The two albums were Parker's most popular sellers during his lifetime and instrumental in creating a vogue among jazz musicians for recording with string accompaniment, including Clifford Brown in 1955 and Stan Getz in 1961, among many others. For Parker to be allowed to record with strings provided a rubber-stamp of artistic legitimacy. Both recordings were admitted to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988.
Just as his association with Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic jamborees are still considered by some to have turned him into a circus performer, the Parker With Strings sessions have attracted a mixture of outright opprobrium and predictable insistence that Bird's solos be preserved and evaluated out of context. The real point, however, is that Parker himself, whether out of naivety, a weakening sense of self-advancement, or a genuine wish to break the mould of 'jazz' performance, was just as concerned with the context as he was with his own place in it. There is a fair amount of saccharine in some of the arrangements, but Parker's solos are undeniably superb on April in Paris and I Didn't Know What Time of Day It Was. The release of the new material in January 1950 not only ushered in a new decade, but also propelled the revolutionary alto saxophonist onto the national stage.
The exclusive contract between Granz and Parker was beneficial to both parties. Granz had just started his Clef label in cooperation with Mercury Records and signing Parker in late 1948 was a coup for the young producer. Granz had not yet assembled a large roster of recording artists and Parker seemed willing to record sides with groups other than his working quintet. Parker had already experienced a sense of this variety when he recorded two sides for Granz’s album The Jazz Scene in December 1947. For The Bird at Carnegie Hall’s recital studio, where he was paired with the exceptional trio of Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne. He then went over to the main concert hall to sit in with Neal Hefti's large orchestra on Repetition. Parker also worked side-by-side with swing musicians, including his idol Lester Young, on Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. The JATP and The Jazz Scene recordings were all apparently one-off affairs, so when Parker actually started his exclusive contract, it was on a recording with the pathbreaking Machito And His Afro-Cuban Orchestra, which was not only the first truly racially integrated and culturally diverse band in the US, but also the first to assemble the rhythmic trio of tumbadoras (congas), bongó, and timbales that became the standard percussion lineup in subsequent Latin bands. There was another JATP live concert and a couple of combo dates recorded before Parker realized his long-held dream. Charlie Parker with Strings not only provided an opportunity to play standards, which his previous labels were loath to record because of royalty payments, but also to perform in a group setting that was completely different from anything in the past. The critics screamed that it was just a commercial strategy and to a certain degree it was, but Parker’s recordings with strings were a huge artistic success.
The opening track, Just Friends was the biggest hit of Parker's career and one that he considered among his best (he reportedly played it for the doctor who treated him during his final days at Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter's apartment). After the glossy string and harp introduction, Parker’s rich sound fills the speakers. This odd collection of instruments finds a coherent ensemble sound immediately and the performance swings assuredly, with a perfect mix between alto and strings. Following Mitch Miller's oboe interlude, Parker improvises a brilliantly melodic and accessible solo. The alternate takes offer conclusive evidence that Parker was indeed improvising throughout these sessions and from time to time the arrangements are modified to offer greater contrasts between the strings and his sax. Had they continued making tracks like Just Friends, the whole Parker with Strings concept might have been accepted. Instead (probably right after finishing the master of Just Friends), someone must have said “Bird, can you play some more melody in your solos?” and for some reason Parker agreed, for there are few pure improvisations in the succeeding tracks Everything Happens to Me, April in Paris, and Summertime. Parker embellishing the melody is hardly a bad thing and the glorious tone of the horn against the string background is lush and satisfying. On these sides, Parker is filling the role of a singer, especially on Summertime where the arrangement is a near-copy of the original setting used in the opera Porgy and Bess. But when Parker just blows on the chords, as on If I Should Lose You and I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, the jazz content takes flight and Parker elevates the whole soaring ensemble with him.
The Verve set included both of the Parker with Strings studio sessions, plus a splendid live set from Carnegie Hall which featured a new Jimmy Mundy arrangement of Easy to Love, as well as fine versions of What is This Thing Called Love, Gerry Mulligan's Rocker, and Repetition. The original version of Repetition was also included, along with a 1952 big band-and-strings session. The master takes all appear on the first disc, with the alternates all on the second disc. It is hard to imagine why Verve chose to program the set in this manner, with the single-disc Master Takes version still available, so those who were not interested in the alternates just bought that CD. Sadly, Phil Schaap's fragmentary booklet notes list different recording dates than in the main personnel listings, there are discrepancies regarding the musicians, and some of the alternates have no commentary at all. Schaap’s sloppy research and attention to all of the wrong details plagued Verve and Columbia reissues for years before they stopped hiring him. Why he was brought back for this project remains a mystery.
In his later years,
Parker expressed an interest in exploring further mixtures
between the classical and jazz worlds, specifically setting
his alto against a background of woodwinds, harp, chorus,
and rhythm section. To Granz’s credit, he recorded Parker
with such a group arranged and conducted by Gil Evans.
Unfortunately, there were both artistic and technical
problems with the recording, and although Parker, Evans, and
choral director Dave Lambert were apparently willing to
remake the session for free, Granz did not want to spend any
more time or money on the project. Had Parker lived long
enough, he might have become a part of the Third Stream
movement and created some entirely new fusion between the
worlds of jazz and classical music. Instead, it was
Parker’s former sideman, Mile Davis who created some of
the first stirrings in the Third Stream world with his solos
on John Lewis' Three Little Feelings. Like Parker,
Davis had to move to a new recording company (in this case
Columbia) for the opportunity to make such large-scale
recordings. Parker’s pioneering experiments with strings
were a necessary first step, and in their best moments, show
that the classical and jazz worlds can both profit
immensely from exploring common ground.
You can hear these swinging rhythms with lush strings and a twist of bebop when Dick Oatts performs Charlie Parker with Strings with the New Zealand String Quartet and Jazz Ensemble, Musical Director Rodger Fox. Oatts is an international soloist best known as the lead alto player in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra from the late 1970s and still holds down that role in the the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He has accompanied such eminent vocalists as Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and Milton Nascimento, as well as recording solos for Luther Vandross and Everything But The Girl, among many others.
Dick Oatts -
Saxophone Guest Artist
The New Zealand String Quartet, Rodger Fox - Music Director / Conductor
Daniel Hayles - Piano
Rory Macartney - Bass
Lauren Ellis - Drums
Eilish Wilson - Baritone saxophone / Bass Clarinet / Flute
Louisa Williamson – Tenor Saxophone / Flute / Clarinet
Monday 15/4 - Wellington, Memorial Theatre, Victoria University (www.eventfinda.co.nz)
Tuesday 16/4 - Palmerston North, Globe Theatre (www.globetheatre.co.nz)
Wednesday 17/4 - Napier, Paisley Stage (www.eventfinda.co.nz)
Thursday 18/4 - Taupo, Great Lake Centre (www.ticketek.co.nz)
Friday 19/4 - Tauranga Jazz Festival, Baycourt Theatre (www.ticketek.co.nz)
Saturday 20/4 - Auckland, Uxbridge Theatre, Howick (www.uxbridge.org.nz)