5 Essential Charlie Parker Albums

Charlie Parker Albums

Photo: William P. Gottlieb / Public domain

Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-55) was arguably the greatest saxophonist of all time (although some might vote for John Coltrane). Parker was one of a handful of musicians who permanently changed the vocabulary of jazz. By 1950, most young jazz musicians on every instrument sounded like a close relative of Bird’s and even his throwaway phrases were being adopted and recycled by others. The alto-saxophonist had the ability to play remarkably fast solos that were perfectly coherent, he was harmonically and rhythmically way ahead of nearly everyone else, and yet he was a blues player at heart. He lived several lifetimes during his 34 years.

Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas but was much more interested in the after-hours club scene of Kansas City, Missouri. Bird started playing music when he was 11, soon settling on the alto-sax. He was so convinced that music would be his mission that he dropped out of high school when he was 15, playing locally. After being humiliated at a jam session where his ideas were far ahead of his execution, he spent a summer practicing up to 15 hours a day, developing many of his adventurous ideas. By the following year, he had become such a virtuoso that he impressed all of the musicians who heard him. Unfortunately he became a heroin addict during that era, a habit that he never kicked for long and that helped lead to his premature death.

Parker was a member of the Jay McShann Orchestra during 1938-42 (making his recording debut), met Dizzy Gillespie (who was his equivalent on trumpet), moved to New York, participated in many jam sessions, and had short stints with the Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine big bands during 1943-44. By then his style had matured and his recordings with Gillespie in 1945 initially shocked and then inspired a countless number of musicians. Bird became the word in the new music that came to be known as bebop and succeeded the music of the swing big bands. Parker set the standard for the next 20 years of jazz.

# 1 – Yardbird Suite – The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection (Rhino)

Because many of Parker’s recordings were made in the 78 era, there has been a countless number of overlapping reissue sets of his recordings from 1944-48 as a leader for the Savoy and Dial labels. Those who want every one of those recordings including the many alternate takes (Parker never simply repeated a solo) are advised to search for the eight-CD set The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy). However to get the cream of those important sessions plus a few titles from his later period on Verve, the two-CD Rhino package will suffice.

Bird is heard with Dizzy on such numbers as “Groovin’ High,” “Dizzy Atmosphere,” and “Shaw ‘Nuff” (which 75 years later still sound a bit radical), leading his quintet with the young trumpeter Miles Davis, and introducing such jazz standards as “Now’s The Time,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology” and “Donna Lee.” This set is a perfect introduction to the musical world of Charlie Parker.

# 2 – The Complete Live Performances On Savoy (Savoy)

Studio recordings of the 78 era were generally limited to three-minutes a song. However in his club appearances, Parker often stretched out far beyond that, playing chorus after chorus of remarkable ideas. The first three CDs in this four-CD set feature Bird at the peak of his powers on his weekly broadcasts from New York’s Royal Roost, mostly from Dec. 11, 1948-Mar. 12, 1949. He and his quintet with either Miles Davis or Kenny Dorham on trumpet, pianist Al Haig, bassist Tommy Potter, and drummer Max Roach are in inspired form playing his repertoire and a few offbeat choices including a beboppish “White Christmas” (in answer to a request). The fourth disc features Parker at a club date in 1950 and on five songs with Dizzy Gillespie at their 1947 Carnegie Hall concert including a brilliant version of “Confirmation.”

# 3 – Charlie Parker With Strings (Verve)

Charlie Parker had long wanted to record with a string section and, when he signed with producer Norman Granz in 1949, he achieved that goal. Bird’s playing had been considered radical in 1945 but as jazz rapidly progressed due partly to him, and as he sought out other avenues of expression, his playing became more accessible to many listeners. This single Verve CD collects together all 18 of the Bird With Strings recordings plus a live set and a big band number. Best is “Just Friends” which has an absolutely perfect Parker solo. The other performances have their moments although within a year Parker would find the settings to be pretty restrictive since the string players did not improvise and the arrangements could not be changed spontaneously. Still, there are many moments of beauty on this program.

# 4 – Bird And Diz (Verve)

On June 6, 1950, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who had not played together on a regular basis since 1945, had a reunion. The result was an album that also featured pianist Thelonious Monk (his only studio recording with Bird), bassist Curly Russell, and drummer Buddy Rich. They performed six numbers including the uptempo blues “Bloomdido,” a heated “Mohawk,” and an unusual version of “My Melancholy Baby.” This CD also contains many alternate takes including seven additional complete versions of the six songs. While it does contain some repetition, the magical interplay between Bird, Diz and Monk with Buddy Rich adding his brand of fire makes this a keeper.

# 5 -The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall (Original Jazz Classics)

Due to his heroin habit and constant excess of alcohol, Charlie Parker’s health declined in the 1950s, resulting in his death in 1955. However his influence and great impact on music did not end with his death and the phrase “Bird Lives” became a popular form of graffiti later in the decade. Parker was capable of great brilliance up until the end. On May 15, 1953, a special concert in Toronto, Canada teamed Parker with Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach. The six numbers, which include “Perdido,” a blistering version of “Salt Peanuts,”  “Hot House,” and “A Night In Tunisia” find Parker in top form, matching wits and ideas with the competitive Gillespie. It is arguably Charlie Parker’s last great recording and still sounds exciting today. Even 65 years after his death, Bird Lives.

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