Charlie Parker: Donna Lee

I could have accessed so many pieces from this era, but I really like “Donna Lee.” It’s a great band, a revolutionary band, with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Max, each a legend in the creation of jazz music. And it’s a great piece of music. It’s an abbreviated song—Charlie Parker takes two choruses, Miles and Bud split one, and then they take it out. I like the fact that everyone was able to say so much within that period of time.

The horns were so much out in front on recordings from this time, it’s almost difficult to hear what everybody else was doing! But still, you can hear so well on this tune how Max could propel a soloist—the way he builds through the course of the song, the way he accompanies the melody and then the soloist. He always pays attention to dynamics; when the piano solo comes, Max takes it down. But during Bird’s solos, he’s never playing anything corny, like when an accompanist uses exclusively the same rhythmic language as the soloist to converse. They’re congruent with each other, but they aren’t necessarily using the same language. It’s almost like they’re parallel and connected at the same time. So they’re cross-sectioning, but they’re also parallel—Max is egging Bird on and answering his phrases, like they’re speaking different languages but talking about the same thing. I find that fascinating.

Max was such a risk-taker. He had to have received a lot of criticism for playing that way, because nobody else was playing like that in 1947. He was playing with the people who were at the edge of creativity, and he himself was pushing it forward. Where he was placing his phrases was completely unconventional as far as the rhythmic language of the day. As I listen, I keep wondering, “where is the impetus for you to do that?”

On “Donna Lee,” even when the melody is being played, Max is playing a kind of counter-melody against it. Arthur Taylor used to talk about “Confirmation,” how there are hits in the course of tunes like that, that are the tune. That’s how Max is playing that in “Donna Lee.” He’s playing off of the melody, playing in the holes of that melody, almost like he’s creating an alternate melody, an accompanying rhythmic melody.

October 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Clifford Brown: Donna Lee

When Clifford Brown revisited Ellis Tollin's Philadelphia instrument shop, Music City, for another Monday night jam session on June 25, 1956, it seemed that the sky was the limit for the brilliant 25-years-young trumpet star. In just four short years he had taken the jazz world by a storm. But after his final number that evening, "Donna Lee," he left by car to travel to Chicago for the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet's next gig, only to die in an accident en route, along with Richie and Nancy Powell.

But was this "Donna Lee," and two other tracks, really from June 25, 1956, as Bruce Lundvall and Dan Morgenstern's liner notes for the original 1973 LP release proclaimed? Or was Nick Catalano's 2001 biography correct in asserting that this particular jam session actually took place a year earlier, on May 31, 1955? Catalano (and researcher/trumpeter Al Hood) pointed to participating saxophonist Billy Root, who was apparently on the road instead with Stan Kenton in late June of 1956, and who believed the recordings came from the May 1955 session. However, jazz historian Phil Schaap, for one, stands by the 1956 date, as did Ellis Tollin himself.. After all, Brownie is heard complaining at the conclusion of "Donna Lee" about how hot it is—and Philadelphia hit a cool 71? on 5-31-55, as opposed to a more sultry 86? on 6-25-56.

Whatever the case, listening to Brown's magnificent playing on "Donna Lee" is an exhilarating experience, but also a painful one, with the knowledge that the trumpeter, depending on which date is correct, had either mere hours or just a year left to live. What's most noticed in Brown's playing of the theme and especially in his solo is his great facility and rich, lustrous sound, and also his typical fondness for the middle register. He thinks on his feet, and comes across unrushed even at the surging up-tempo that the rhythm section handily maintains here. Brown's extended lines are uncliched, tireless, and thematically focused, as he inventively explores the harmonies of Parker's tune. Dockery contributes a fluent piano solo notable for its intriguing left hand accentuations. Tollin's energetic support behind both Brown and Dockery's solos show him to be a more than adequate drummer in the bop genre. Brown's second improv contains even more compelling phrasing, as he smoothly intersperses—amidst his runs—both crisply-hit high notes and lower octave tones played with a broad vibrato.

May 19, 2009 · 5 comments


Jaco Pastorius: Donna Lee

The eponymously titled Jaco Pastorius was Jaco's first release as a leader. To this day many aficionados still consider it the greatest bass album ever recorded. At the very least, it is the most influential bass album as far as jazz-rock musicians go. It very quickly spawned legions of bass players who tried to live up to its standards. That yielded about 100,000 imitators and, thankfully, about 10 brilliant bassists over the years.

Legends come from someplace, and a big part of Jaco Pastorius's legend was born with this cut. His take on Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," a tune that Miles Davis claimed he authored and very well may have, is always listed in those "Top Ten" lists that fans seem to be so fond of making for their favorite artists these days. But fandom aside, the author of the definitive book about Jaco, jazz critic Bill Milkowski, says this particular performance is the one that introduced the modern electric bass era.

Regardless of original composer, Jaco makes this piece his own. (You'll forgive me a cliché every 300 reviews or so, won't you?) Don Alias keeps a steady conga beat as Jaco blazes through the changes of this bebop number. Those changes, based on the song "Back Home Again in Indiana," give Jaco the perfect opening to display both melodic and rhythmic chops simultaneously. He dives in with all 10 fingers, producing a rolling momentum that only your off-switch can stop.

September 16, 2008 · 0 comments


Denis Chang & Fleche D'Or: Donna Lee

It has been suggested that the Hot Club Swing movement led by Django Reinhardt was dealt a death blow with the advent of bebop. But Django himself had enthusiastically embraced the emerging force and was already breaking away from the standard Hot Club la pompe format, recording with more mainstream rhythm sections and even jamming with Dizzy, then on a postwar European tour. Since the legendary Romani guitarist never had the opportunity to share the stage with Bird, one can only speculate what direction jazz guitar would have taken had they met. On this track, Denis Chang offers a hint of what such a summit meeting may have produced.

Having forged his reputation as one of the world's top instructors of the jazz Manouche guitar style, Canadian guitarist Denis Chang has effectively debunked the old saw that "those who can't, teach." Chang obviously can, and his impressive command of the lingua Djanca is in full throttle as he and fellow soloist Ritary Gaguenetti tackle one of the most challenging anthems in bebop. Following tenorman Sean Craig's blistering up-tempo charge, the Selmer-style petite bouche guitars sail smoothly through turbulent bebopian waters. We can only dream of what might have been, but Denis Chang & Flèche D'Or have brought us closer to answering the question, "What Would Django Do?"

June 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Holman: Donna Lee

The veteran arranger Bill Holman is considered by many to be the best in the business, whether writing for Stan Kenton or for the Fifth Dimension. So it’s always a treat when he puts together a big band of topflight Los Angeles musicians to play his charts. At this live performance, he introduces an arrangement of Charlie Parker’s classic “Donna Lee” that’s arguably the most innovative and imaginative in the jazz repertory. And it swings like crazy.

November 08, 2007 · 0 comments


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