Time for a quick Jazz review, I think. This time I thought I’d pick a classic live performance from May 15th 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto. Originally released as a vinyl LP with only 6 tracks on it, and called The Quintet of the Year, but subsequently re-released in various versions on CD, with various titles including Jazz at Massey Hall. The whole concert is now available on Youtube here:
This concert was planned to unite the greatest stars of the bebop era who had performed together earlier in their careers but had gradually evolved different styles over the intervening years. The line-up is Charlie Parker on alto, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and the great Max Roach on drums which is stellar by any criterion!
Gatherings of star jazz players have often turned out to be disappointing, largely because very great musicians can sometimes interfere negatively rather than positively with each other, not necessarily consciously but because they can have ideas incompatible with one another. This evening, however, was a glorious exception to this rule, doubtless because all the musicians had worked together in the past, and their subsequent individual development had not taken them too far beyond their shared musical background. It is true that the ensemble passages are slight, but that doesn’t matter much because the solos are of such a remarkable and consistently high standard. Charlie Parker turns in some of the very best of his later recorded work, giving the lie to those who argue that his musical abilities were in decline at this time. He might not play as elegantly as he did on the classic Dial and Savoy sessions, but he is significantly more adventurous, with startling melodic contrasts in much of his work. At times this is a bit of a problem in that he seems to full of ideas that what comes out is a sequence of breathtaking fragments rather than a cohesive solo. This happens on A Night in Tunisia, for example, which never quite fulfills the promise of its magnificent opening break. On other tracks, though, especially Hot House his improvisations are just brilliant. It’s hard to imagine listening to this that in less than two years he would be dead.
Dizzy Gillespie matches Parker in superb fashion, betraying none of the offhandedness that often afflicted his later recorded performances, and the pyrotechnical quality of his playing is as exhilarating as it is instantly recognizable. Gillespie was an extrovert on stage and his frequent dancing around on the stage results in him going on and off mike from time to time, but it doesn’t detract from the performance once you realize why he’s fading in and out. It is, after all, a live performance and if you shut your eyes you can imagine Dizzy Gillespie the showman without any difficulty at all!
Most Jazz reviewers confine their comments on the rhythm section to a few kind words, but in this case that would be a travesty. The limitations of live recording technology in 1953 result in a rather unbalanced mix, but the flip side of that is that you can hear particularly well the pivotal importance of the bass playing of Charles Mingus. Between them Mingus and Max Roach lay down a relentlessly propulsive beat as well as taking gripping solos; the drum workouts in Wee and Salt Peanuts are astonishing in their interplay of rhythm and texture. Trumping even them, however, is the genius of Bud Powell who plays at a level consistently high even by his own standards.
Bud Powell is a fascinating musician for many reasons. Much less of a formalist than many Jazz pianists he nevertheless seems to generate a real sense of unity, more through the emotional drive underpinning his phrases than by imposing any set structure on his improvisations. His solo on Wee offers a fine example of this: moving inexorably towards a shattering climax as the right hand figures vary ceaselessly in their length and the chords punched out by the left hand grow more frequent and more percussive.
This album is another must-have for any serious collector of post-War jazz. The individual parts are all superb, but the whole is even greater than their sum.
PS. I had the pleasure of attending a concert at Massey Hall myself, when I was on sabbatical in Toronto in 2005/6.