Unbridled Bird


Charlie Parker: The Mercury & Clef 10-Inch LP Collection (Verve/UMe) is just one of the releases coinciding with Bird’s centennial.

(Photo: Courtesy Verve/UMe)

Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone remains one of the most recognizable sounds in the history of recorded jazz, even 65 years after his death at age 34. Despite recording for fewer than two full decades, the bebop progenitor played a leading role in helping to define a bold new era of the music starting in the early 1940s. This year, a handful of albums, books and prints are being released to mark the centennial of Parker’s birth.

“One of the things he was particularly strong with was making use of just a few ideas,” said bassist Fumi Tomita, who released Celebrating Bird: A Tribute To Charlie Parker (Next Level) in September. “‘Donna Lee’ is a good example, the Dial versions: He takes two choruses, and if you look at them, the second chorus isn’t the same as the first. But it’s incredible how it’s similarly constructed.

“He kind of had a platform that he was improvising off of, so the same ideas come up again,” Tomita continued. “One of the reasons he’s such a genius is that he was able to play these lines starting on any part of the bar. It wasn’t always a carbon copy; beat 1, he wouldn’t play the same thing. It was such a part of him, he was able to bring that motive into a different light. And he would change it rhythmically or melodically.”

Charlie Parker: The Mercury & Clef 10-Inch LP Collection (Verve/UMe) brings together five albums Parker made with producer Norman Granz in the late 1940s and early ’50s: Bird & Diz (a 1950 recording that features Parker and Dizzy Gillespie fronting a quintet with pianist Thelonious Monk, bassist Curly Russell and drummer Buddy Rich), Charlie Parker (which is bookended by hard-driving takes of “Now’s The Time” and “Cosmic Rays”), Charlie Parker Plays South Of The Border (where Parker takes on everything from “Tico Tico” to “La Cucaracha”), and the crossover landmarks Charlie Parker With Strings and Charlie Parker With Strings (Vol. 2). The LPs are pressed on black 10-inch vinyl and feature newly remastered audio from the original analog tapes.

The savvy and boundless improvisations on the Mercury and Clef sides helped shift the genre toward a new vernacular that’s still being drawn upon today. And while there’s no dearth of musicians capable of Bird’s aerial feats—if not his imagination—there’s an overarching context, something beyond sound and vocabulary, that still makes the saxophonist a marker for contemporary jazz players.

“For a long time, Charlie Parker’s music was considered modern, and if you look at the history books, they call bebop ‘modern jazz,’ which in 2020 is ridiculous,” said Tomita, an assistant professor in the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Modern jazz is very different—it’s almost as far away as King Oliver or Louis Armstrong. … But there’s still the idea of music as art, and that’s how Charlie Parker thought of [his work]. I believe today’s jazz musicians still have that—what we play is art.”

Jazz album covers conceived of by well-regarded designers and artists have long been admired by collectors and celebrated in books. Now, David Stone Martin’s framed illustrations of the album covers for Charlie Parker With Strings, Charlie Parker Big Band and The Magnificent Charlie Parker are available from uDiscover Music and Verve in three canvas sizes.

Then there’s Chasin’ The Bird: Charlie Parker in California, a graphic novel from Z2 Comics that’s offered in two versions: a standard hardcover edition that includes a flexi-disc, and a deluxe edition that comes with a limited-edition 45-RPM single and three art prints. The book itself, drawn by Dave Chisholm and colored by DreamWorks Animation Director Peter Markowski, covers the West Coast sojourn Parker took in 1945. During his time in Los Angeles, Bird cut definitive sides like “Orinthology” and “Yardbird Suite,” both issued in 1946 on the Dial label.

That latter tune is included in the newly released Charlie Parker: The Complete Scores (Hal Leonard), a 400-page compendium of 40 Bird compositions transcribed note-for-note for alto saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums from the original recordings, complete with solos. The hardcover scores come along with a slipcase, making it an ideal keepsake for musicians as well as Bird fans.

“Teaching bass students, I always give them Charlie Parker heads or solos, because I see them as jazz etudes,” Tomita said. “It’s a good way to get an idea of how people solo, because transcribing is hard for lots of young students. Through this material, it gives them an idea of what to expect on bebop-style soloing. ... They’re technique exercises and they assimilate the language of jazz, and how you imply chords without playing chords.” DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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