'Unheard Bird' Gives Fresh Insight Into Charlie Parker's Musical Genius

Aug 19, 2016
Originally published on August 19, 2016 1:26 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, nicknamed Bird, was one of the single most influential jazz musicians. Critic Kevin Whitehead says it wasn't just other horn players who started phrasing like him, pianists, drummers and everyone else did too. Now a batch of previously unknown Parker performances from 1949 to '52 is out. Here's Kevin's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN OSCAR FOR TREADWELL: INCOMPLETE 411-2")

CHARLIE PARKER: On the down beat two, three. Yeah, OK.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Charlie Parker on alto saxophone from "Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes" on Verve. This new batch of Parker scraps and alternate takes has kicked up a spirited debate among jazz watchers. Do they reveal anything new about a great musician who's already so extensively documented? For other fans, the reaction is less complicated. You mean 60 years after he died, now we have more Charlie Parker?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER SONG, "NIGHT AND DAY")

WHITEHEAD: Charlie Parker with a studio big band in 1952. Despite one famously disastrous recording date and his self-medication with alcohol and heroin, Bird could be amazingly consistent on record. He sounds so poised and polished you could miss his brilliance. He makes improvising on the highest level seem too easy, even at crazy tempos. It's hard to think that fast every second. And Parker had pet licks he'd insert into a solo giving him time to plot his next move. But every improvisation was freshly conceived. Listen to him on an alternate take of an unnamed fast blues with Buddy Rich on drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER QUARTET SONG, "BLUES: FAST; ALTERNATE TAKE 372-4")

WHITEHEAD: The anthology "Unheard Bird" premieres 21 complete performances and a variety of incomplete takes with full or partial Charlie Parker solos. One reason he sounds consistent on record, if he didn't feel like a solo was measuring up to his standard, he might break it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER SONG, "WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED LOVE?: INCOMPLETE 759-1")

WHITEHEAD: There are also among these newly issued performances a bunch of false starts. Some of those are absurdly short.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER ALBUM, "UNHEARD BIRD: THE UNISSUED TAKES")

WHITEHEAD: But some longer scraps suggest how much work went into Parker's seemingly effortless playing. Producer and Bird-aholic (ph) Phil Schaap edited together a sequence of false starts as Parker and company grapple with his blues line "Bloomdido." On the first take here, he misses his own entrance and apologizes. That's Thelonious Monk on piano and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet with Buddy Rich again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOMDIDO: FALSE STARTS")

PARKER: Excuse me, I misunderstood it myself. OK, do it again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Cut please.

WHITEHEAD: You know it's a tough tune when Dizzy Gillespie stumbles. "Unheard Bird" on two CDs also contains the previously released master takes of the 18 tunes involved so you can hear how all that preparation paid off. There are six new complete takes from Parker's so-called "South Of The Border" session with Latin tunes, congas and bongos. That date really shows off his uncanny timing. Charlie Parker had it all, mastery of harmony and his horn, speed, wit and melodic imagination. "Unheard Bird" is more for experts than the casually curious. But there's a lot here to catch anybody's ear.

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Charlie Parker "Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER SONG, "TICO TICO: ALTERNATE TAKE 542-6"

DAVIES: Coming up, John Powers reviews the new film comedy "War Dogs." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.