Charles Christopher “Charlie” Parker Jr., or Charlie “Bird” Parker as he came to be known, was best known as one of the first to successfully take the traditional ingredients of jazz music and blend them up into something wonderfully “new” – bebop. With a natural sense of melody and talent that few, if any, could compare to, perhaps the only reason his name has faded a bit in the modern era is that he died in 1955 at the age of 34. Had he lived as long as say, Louis Armstrong, it is a fairly sizable “what if?” as to who would first come to mind when people thought of the greatest jazz musician.
Though not as extensively recorded as Armstrong came to be, Parker does live on through his own recordings as well as the influence he had on his contemporaries as they saw what was possible – not to mention the younger musicians who came up not knowing that what he was doing was once impossible, and so settled themselves into the genre accordingly.
Miles Davis, for instance, would not have been as hungry for the sound perhaps if he’d not first gotten a taste of it from Parker’s alto-saxophone.
On July 8 of this year, Verve Records – a label that recorded Parker often through his heyday – released a two-CD package entitled Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes. With a name like that, how could any self-respecting jazz enthusiast – neophyte though I may be – resist?
With material taken from the end of the 1940s all the way up through 1952, Unheard Bird finds Mr. Parker fitting his sound into such variations as fronting a big band, leading a quintet, floating effortlessly above a Latin jazz orchestra, and playing alongside such jazz luminaries as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Dizzy Gillespie.
The 69 tracks that make up the two and a half hours these recordings are comprised of are, to be honest, more false starts than alternate takes or undiscovered revelations about Parker’s sound, but what they do provide is a fascinating glimpse inside the head of the man himself and of how he processed the music going on around him. Whether asking forgiveness as he muffles the intro on his own horn line, or stopping the studio recording because he could hear talking in one corner of the room and it was distracting him from giving the sound his full attention, there’s a sense of being a fly on the wall as a genius works.
For those of us interested in both the music and the man, I’m not sure there’s another release out there quite like this one. It’s one thing to read a biography of an artist or to listen to their many albums and comfortably feel that you understand what they were trying to get across in their music. It’s something wholly different to literally listen piece by piece as a true craftsman works this way and that way at something until they’re happy with it.
Or if not happy, then they’re at least pleased enough to let it out into the world as they are sure they’ve done everything possible to honor the inspiration of music. Something, on a much smaller and less talented scale, I think I’m going to try to do here with this review.
I suppose I could have saved you all that reading and simply said, “Buy this – it’s good,” so maybe my own “unheard” work would not quite find me so fascinating a topic.