I know it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, but I’ve got so many things to do that I don’t have time for anything but a brief post today. I heard this track on BBC Radio 3 last night and it brought back a lot of memories for me so I thought I’d post it here with some brief comments. When I was at school most of my friends seemed to be into heavy metal, which I found completely tedious, so while they were out buying LPs by Hawkwind or Iron Maiden I was acquiring a secret collection of classic jazz records. Among my most prized purchases was a boxed set of six vinyl discs entitled The Legendary Dial Masters; they’re now available on CD, of course. I listened to these records over and over again and can easily understand why they’re regarded as some of the greatest musical performances of the twentieth century, not only in Jazz but in all music.
There’s a curious story about the Dial sessions, in that they took place in Hollywood California as part of an “exclusive” one-year contract (signed in 1946) between Dial records and Charlie Parker, who just happened to have signed another exclusive contract with the Savoy label based in New York. By this time in his life, Parker was already seriously addicted to heroin and this example of duplicity is consistent with other aspects of his behaviour: he regularly cheated and scrounged off friends and strangers in order to feed his habit and probably gave relatively little thought to the consequences of being found out. In this case, the clear breach of contract was pretty quickly rumbled, which could have led to a lawsuit, but it seems to have been settled amicably by the record labels, who agreed that both sets of recordings could be made commercially available.
It would take scores of blog posts to do justice to these great tracks, so I’ll just make a few comments now. First thing to mention is that the LPs forming the boxed set don’t just include the final versions as released, but usually a number of incomplete or discarded takes. At the session in question, recorded on February 19th 1947, there are 13 takes in all for just four tunes. It’s fascinating listening to these alternative versions (which are often, in my view, just as good if not better than the “final” version), not least because they demonstrate the wonderful spontaneity of Charlie Parker’s playing. They also have an experimental feel to them. The track I heard last night, Bird’s Nest, is, on one level, yet another bebop composition based on the chord changes of the George Gershwin standard “I got rhythm”, but what’s very special about it is just how free his improvisation is, both rhythmically and harmonically. It is, of course, well known that Charlie Parker’s nickname was “Bird” (originally Yardbird), and this track in particularly demonstrates that his playing really was very like birdsong – agile, quirky and above all intensely beautiful. The main difference is that most birdsong is actually atonal, which Bird’s music was not.
Another thing worth mentioning about this track is the identity of the piano player. When I heard it last night it triggered a vague memory that Errol Garner made some records with Charlie Parker. Was this one of them? I honestly couldn’t remember, but became increasingly convinced when I heard the piano solo. Later on, a quick search through my discography revealed that I was right. It is indeed a young Errol Garner. Although he doesn’t play badly, he doesn’t sound to me either comfortable or convincing playing bebop. Nevertheless, this session gives an important glimpse into the musical development of a major artist. You could say the same thing about the other tracks made around the same time by Bird and the young Miles Davis.
But that’s enough words. The whole point about music is that it says something that can’t be said with words. Birds manage perfectly well without them too.Follow @telescoper