THE DOZENS: CHARLIE PARKER'S OVERLOOKED GEMS by Marc Myers

There are no bad Charlie Parker recordings. Everything Bird recorded had the blues and soul baked right in. So to assemble a list of missed Parker masterpieces required some hard listening and serious justification. In tribute to Parker on the 53d anniversary of his death this week, here are 12 overlooked Bird platters that matter.


                                    Charlie Parker at Birdland (1951), photo by Marcel Fleiss



Charlie Parker: Cherokee

Track

Cherokee

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Charlie Parker: A Studio Chronicle (1940-1948) (JSP 915)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax),

Efferge Ware (guitar) Little Phil Philips (drums)

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Composed by Ray Noble

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Recorded: Kansas City, probably circa 1941/1942 (some sources believe it was recorded in September 1943 or 1944)

Albumcovercharlieparkerstudiochronicle

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Five months after Count Basie recorded "Cherokee" in 1939, Charlie Barnet covered it and wound up with a massive hit. By the early 1940s, Kansas City swing bands were using the tune to showcase soloists’ chops and stamina. In Jay McShann’s band, that task fell to Parker, who would improvise effortlessly on chorus after chorus. This demo recording of "Cherokee" was likely made at a Kansas City music store sometime during the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban of 1942-1944. As Bird imaginatively weaves in and out of the song’s melody line, you literally hear bebop being born.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: Ko Ko

Track

Ko Ko (aka Ko-Ko, aka KoKo)

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy SVY 17120)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet, piano), Max Roach (drums),

Curly Russell, bass

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Composed by Charlie Parker

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Recorded: New York, November 26, 1945

Albumcovercparkerdialsavoy

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Built on the chord changes to "Cherokee," "Ko Ko" was recorded during Parker’s first date as a leader and first session for Savoy Records. This track demonstrates just how difficult this new music was to play. Miles Davis and pianist Andre Thornton (Sadik Hakim) were supposed to play on the tune but were hamstrung by the song’s complexities. So Dizzy Gillespie played trumpet on the theme and then switched to piano behind Bird’s solos. Here, Parker no longer is working inside the system but inventing a new language. "Ko Ko" was a ferocious salvo fired across swing’s bow.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: Lover Man

Track

Lover Man

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes (Savoy Jazz)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Howard McGhee (trumpet), Jimmy Bunn (piano), Bob Kesterson (bass), Roy Porter (drums).

Composed by Jimmy Davis, Roger “Ram” Ramirez and James Sherman

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Recorded: Hollywood, July 29, 1946

Albumcovercparkerdialsavoy_1

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Recorded in Hollywood for Dial during a West Coast trip, "Lover Man" marks a turning point in Parker’s career. High as a kite on narcotics, Parker was barely able to squeeze off the tune’s notes. Yet despite Parker’s self-destructive streak, his playing here was still far more impassioned than musicians who were sober. Listen as Bird misses the intro but then manages to turn in a heartfelt effort. The same is true of "The Gypsy" from the same date. Following this session, Parker returned to his hotel, set fire to the room, was arrested and placed in Camarillo State Hospital’s psychiatric ward, where he remained until January 1947.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: Carvin' the Bird

Track

Carvin’ the Bird

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes (Savoy Jazz)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Howard McGhee (trumpet), Wardell Gray (tenor sax), Dodo Marmarosa (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Don Lamond (drums).

Composed by Charlie Parker

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Recorded: Hollywood, February 26, 1947

Albumcovercparkerdialsavoy_1

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Just weeks after his release from Camarillo State Hospital, Parker was back in Dial’s studios to record with trumpeter Howard McGhee, saxophonist Wardell Gray and other top West Coast bebop artists. What makes "Carvin’ the Bird" so special—in addition to Bird’s refreshed sound—is Barney Kessel’s unusual guitar intro. Kessel opens with a series of thick, modern chords—a prototype, perhaps, for John Coltrane’s Giant Steps? Despite the crowd of musicians on this date, "Carvin’ the Bird" is an effective blues, with echoes of George Gershwin’s "Fascinating Rhythm," and marks the reemergence of Bird from an especially dark period.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker (with Miles Davis): Milestones

Track

Milestones

Group

Miles Davis All-Stars

CD

Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy SVY 17120)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (tenor sax), Miles Davis (trumpet), John Lewis (piano), Nelson Boyd (bass), Max Roach (drums).

Composed by Miles Davis

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Recorded: New York, August 14, 1947

Albumcovercparkerdialsavoy

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

This session is significant for three reasons: Miles Davis is the leader and composer, Bird is playing tenor sax rather than alto, and the tune is technically one of the first “cool jazz” ensemble recordings. By the summer of 1947, Miles was coming under the influence of Claude Thornhill arranger Gil Evans, whose apartment on 55th St. was a crash pad and music-theory think tank for Bird, Miles and Gerry Mulligan. In the summer of 1947, Miles certainly was exposed to Evans’ radical charts for Anthropology and Robbin’s Nest. Miles’ interactions with Evans intensified in the months that followed, resulting in the Birth of the Cool nonet in late1948 and early 1949. Unlike many straight bop rave-ups based on the blues or Tin Pan Alley chord changes, Milestones in 1947 embraced space and featured a cooler, Evans-like melody line. Listen to Miles’ solo and you’ll hear the 1950s Miles breaking through bop's shell. Swing, bop, cool—call it what you will, it was all the same to Bird, who turns in a fabulous solo on tenor.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: Parker's Mood

Track

Parker's Mood

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy SVY 17120)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), John Lewis (piano), Curly Russell (bass), Max Roach (drums).

Composed by Charlie Parker

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Recorded: September 18, 1948

Albumcovercparkerdialsavoy

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Bird’s playing on "Parker’s Mood" is often referred to as the greatest saxophone solo ever recorded. Parker opens with a fanfare, and John Lewis follows with a piano intro. Then Parker maintains a constant thread throughout, sustaining the song’s tension and purity, never doubling back or repeating a phrase. Lewis’ solo features touches of Bud Powell’s lush technique, and Parker returns on the back end, winding down the tune and ending with the same opening fanfare. But Lewis has the final say, finishing oddly on an unresolved chord. Bird is completely exposed here, and his emotional pain is all too evident. Five years later, in December 1953, King Pleasure added words to the song, grimly foreshadowing Parker’s own funeral. "Parker’s Mood" remains one of Bird’s most lyrical and enduring blues lines.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker (with Machito): Okiedoke

Track

Okiedoke

Group

Charlie Parker with Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra

CD

South of the Border (Verve)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Machito (maracas), Mario Bauza (trumpet),

Frank “Paquito” Davilla, Bob Woodlen (trumpet); Gene Johnson, Fred Skerritt (alto sax); Jose Madera (tenor sax); Leslie Johnakins (baritone sax), Rene Hernandez (piano), Bobby Rodriguez (bass), Jose Mangual (bongo), Luis Miranda (conga) and Ubaldo Nieto (timbali).

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Composed by Machito and Rene Hernandez

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Recorded: New York, January 1949

Albumcovercparkersouthofborder

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Weeks after the 1948 recording ban was lifted on musicians, Clef Records producer Norman Granz brought Charlie Parker together with bandleader Machito for a four-side Afro-Cuban recording session. Dizzy Gillespie had already pioneered the Latin-jazz big-band sound with "Algo Bueno" in 1946 as well as "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" and "Manteca" in 1947. Parker’s late 1948 Afro-Cuban sides sounded so fresh that Granz brought Bird and Machito back in January to record "Okiedoke" and three others. "Okiedoke" is significant because it’s one of the earliest mergers of jazz and mambo—a dance rhythm pioneered earlier in the 1940s by Perez Prado. Parker clearly is having a blast playing over the piston-like percussion and sax-saturated arrangement.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: Everything Happens to Me

Track

Everything Happens to Me

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Charlie Parker With Strings: The Master Takes (Verve 523984)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Ray Brown (bass), Buddy Rich (drums),

Mitch Miller (oboe, English horn), Stan Freeman (piano), Meyer Rosen (harp), Bronislaw Gimpel, Max Hollander, Milton Lomask (violins); Frank Brieff (viola), Frank Miller (cello), Jimmy Carroll (arranger/conductor)

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Arranged and conducted by Jimmy Carroll. Composed by Tom Adair and Matt Dennis

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Recorded: New York, November 30, 1949

Albumcovercharlieparkerwithstrings

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Following Bird’s triumphant solo in 1947 on Neal Hefti’s masterpiece "Repetition," Clef Records producer Norman Granz set up another orchestral date. This time, six sides were recorded with strings, harp and oboe. (Yes, Mitch Miller and Bird on the same record date!) Though "Just Friends" would become a big juke-box hit from the session, "Everything Happens to Me" actually features a finer arrangement and superior playing by Bird—who seems to be channeling Sinatra’s vocal here. From the pizzicato opener and shimmering strings to the Big Ben-like closer, Jimmy Carroll’s Axel Stordahl-inspired chart frames Bird’s vulnerability well.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: K.C. Blues

Track

K.C. Blues

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Swedish Schnapps (Verve 8010)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Miles Davis (trumpet), Walter Bishop (piano), Teddy Kotick (bass), Max Roach (drums).

Composed by Charlie Parker

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Recorded: New York, January 17, 1951

Albumcovercharlieparkerswedishschnapps

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

"Now’s the Time" is perhaps Parker’s most recognizable blues line—it was filched in 1948 by R&B baritone saxophonist Paul Williams and renamed "The Hucklebuck"—but "K.C. Blues" comes close. Taken at a medium tempo, the tune opens with a sexy intro by Walter Bishop Jr., followed by Bird taking three clear-headed choruses. We also hear a more mature Miles—who’s fronting his own groups at this point—playing here with a much more subdued, whispery style. Interestingly, Miles recorded Miles Davis and Horns with Sonny Rollins, Bennie Green, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Roy Haynes for Prestige on the exact same day.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Miles Davis (featuring Charlie Parker): 'Round Midnight

Track

'Round Midnight

Group

Miles Davis (featuring Charlie Parker)

CD

Collector (Prestige 7044)

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Musicians:

Miles Davis (trumpet), Charlie Parker (tenor sax), Sonny Rollins (tenor sax), Philly Joe Jones (drums), Percy Heath (bass), Walter Bishop (piano).

Composed by Thelonious Monk

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Recorded: New York, January 30, 1953

Albumcovermilesdaviscollectorsitems

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

This is one of Charlie Parker’s most unusual recordings. The date was led by Miles Davis, who wrote two of the three tunes recorded that afternoon. The musicians were supposed to record Thelonious Monk’s "Well You Needn’t" but couldn’t complete a master before the recording studio closed. So they switched to Monk’s "‘Round Midnight." This is the only recording on which Bird and Sonny Rollins appear together—both on tenor sax. Parker takes his solo on the song’s opening and closing bridge. Sonny’s solo is on the main theme. Because Parker was signed to Verve at the time, he couldn’t record under his own name. So he was known on the album as Charlie Chan, recording what may be the best version of this jazz perennial.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: Moose the Mooche (live in Montreal)

Track

Moose the Mooche

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Charlie Parker: Montreal 1953 (Uptown2736)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax),

Steep Wade (piano), Dick Garcia (guitar), Bob Rudd (bass), Bobby Malloy (drums)

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Composed by Charlie Parker

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Recorded: Chez Paree Nightclub, Montreal, February 7, 1953

Albumcovercharlieparkermontreal1953

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Recorded live in Montreal, this date is a superb example of Bird playing at his high-speed best. Whether Parker’s velocity on this tune had anything to do with his ever-growing heroin addiction is not known. Parker had traveled north to appear on a Canadian television broadcast and in a concert presented by a Montreal jazz musicians’ society. On this particular night he was playing at the Chez Paree, and he roars through this tune—named ironically for his mid-1940s drug dealer. The recording provides a sense of what Bird sounded like wired and live in front of an enthusiastic club crowd.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


Charlie Parker: I Get a Kick Out of You

Track

I Get a Kick Out of You

Artist

Charlie Parker (alto sax)

CD

Charlie Parker Plays Cole Porter (Verve 8007)

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Musicians:

Charlie Parker (alto sax), Walter Bishop (piano), Teddy Kotick (bass), Roy Haynes (drums),

Jerome Darr (guitar)

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Composed by Cole Porter

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Recorded: New York, March 31, 1954

Albumcovercharlieparkercoleporter

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Charlie Parker Plays Cole Porter was Bird’s last studio date—and his only concept album. There was one composer (Porter) and one theme packaged in an LP rather than a series of singles. But the project was only partially realized. Parker recorded four Porter tracks in March and another two in December, leaving four more to be done. But Parker was never fully committed to the sessions—either because of drug distractions, declining health or pure disinterest. Before Parker could complete the LP, he died on March 12, 1955. What’s interesting about the master take of "I Get a Kick Out of You" is Bird’s love affair with the Porter melody, Roy Haynes’s spot-on drumming, and the quirky Jerome Darr guitar solo that remains oddly appealing, despite its limitations.

Reviewer: Marc Myers


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