If for many enthusiasts, the Dizzy Gillespie original “Be Bop” recording, which featured the trumpeter with the youthful Charlie Parker on sax, became the avatar of the new genre that was to bear its name, the one element that seemed to garner the most attention was the speed with which they played. What Art Tatum was to the piano, Gillespie was to the trumpet and Bird to the sax. And certainly there was no question that these guys could play with virtuosic speed, but merely playing fast isn’t necessarily playing great.
In 1974, when Dizzy Gillespie recorded Dizzy’s Big 4 for Norman Granz’s Pablo Records, he was in his 50s. Although no longer quite the speed demon measured in notes per bar of his younger days, he still seems to have plenty in the tank. If he wasn’t racing down the highway at 95, he was still in the high 80s. On the other hand, there are other things that make for great playing, including harmonic invention, wit, sensitive lyricism, and these often strengthen with age. So this remastered reissue of the album, with Gillespie clearly not yet ready for the dust heap, in the Original Jazz Classics series is a welcome addition to the jazz library.
Working with a piano-less quartet, Gillespie leads a group of all-stars for the session. Longtime collaborator Ray Brown handles bass, Mickey Roker is on drums, and the fine fingers of Joe Pass work the guitar. It is an ensemble that will swing with the best of them.
“Be Bop” shows up on the album, and if he has recorded better versions of the song, this version is no stiff. The liner notes to the reissue talk about “warp speed,” but if that’s something of hyperbole, it’s not far from the truth. Compare the trumpeter’s work here with some of the other recordings of the song, and it’s not far off the mark. Besides, in song after song on the set they never shy away from upping the ante on the tempos.
The album begins with a lively exploration of Gillespie’s “Frelimo,” a tune which despite its cheerful flavor may have some political implications. Liner notes suggest an allusion to Felimo, the Mozambique Liberation Front. Myself, I’d opt for lively cheer over politics. Gillespie’s sensitive muted trumpet work on “Hurry Home,” a comparatively lesser known piece, is a high water mark, as is both his open and muted playing on Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” “Birk’s Works,” another Gillespie composition, “September Song,” and Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” round out the original album. Bonus tracks on the reissue include alternate takes of “Russian Lullaby” and “Jitterbug Waltz.”
Gillespie was to keep going strong for quite a few years. He was still recording in 1992. And if his playing had dropped off over the years, it isn’t yet evident in 1974. Dizzy’s Big 4 has the trumpeter working with a team that understands each other, and together they shine.