Monday, April 3, 2017

Charlie Parker Jams on Verve, 1952

While certain critics consider that producer Norman Granz was responsible for encouraging Charlie Parker to veer away from bebop somewhat and venture into more commercial territory, there's no doubt that Granz also helped widen Bird's horizons. It would be enough to mention the classic album Charlie Parker with Strings, in which Parker is paired with a string section to create a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and that would later be imitated by countless jazz soloists. But the producer influenced the career of the saxophonist in other ways, as well. Granz was very involved in the production and promotion of live jazz gatherings known as Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), all-star groups of jazz musicians who interacted in a jam-session format and who toured both the U.S. and overseas. Many of these live concerts have been preserved on tape thanks to Granz's foresight, and the producer also organized similar studio sessions with an eye to releasing them commercially. One of these, cut in July 1952, involved Parker, who was joined by a stellar cast that included Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Ben Webster and Flip Phillips on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums.

Jazz producer Norman Granz

It's well known that all-star dates can be hit or miss, but from the very first bars it seems clear that this one is most definitely a winner. The length of the four cuts recorded (all of them over 13 minutes each) affords plenty of room for each soloist to show off his undeniable talents, and nobody gets in the way of anyone else. The result is a classic jam session that keeps surprising new listeners several decades after its original release. The meeting of these jazz greats is bookended by two bluesy compositions, "Jam Blues" and "Funky Blues," which work perfectly as vehicles for each participant to explore familiar musical territory in a succession of imaginative solos that allow us to experience different approaches to the blues idiom. Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," introduced by an energetic piano solo by Peterson, is taken at a breakneck tempo and serves as an excuse for some inspired blowing by everyone. Finally, the cut simply entitled "Ballad Medley" presents the group at its mellowest and most intimate, as they tastefully run through a selection of slow standards by Jerome Kern, Matt Dennis, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and others. Throughout the whole session there's that kind of electricity created by a group of excellent musicians who feel comfortable playing together and who constantly spur each other on to achieve new heights with every new solo. The album has been issued on CD as Charlie Parker Jam Session, and its contents are also available as part of the five-disc set The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, which also presents other similar jams produced by Granz in the same time period. While there are other Bird recordings that one should listen to first, in my opinion this remains one of the most satisfying dates of his remarkable career.

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