Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Parker’

Stuck In My Head: They Can’t Take Away Our Music

3 January 2011

Another year in the books, and another clean calendar laid out in front of us. ‘Tis the season for music publications and blogs run down their favorite albums of the previous 12 months, an endlessly fascinating and pointless exercise that never fails to generate mountains of enjoyable column inches. These year end drills amount to harmless guessing games, because while a majority of critics may approve of recent releases by Kanye West, Arcade Fire, The National and LCD Soundsystem, only time will reveal the true classics.

Over the last decade, through the advent of CDRs and MP3s, music has become more accessible, portable, and disposable. As such, it has been reduced to little more than a parity product – all songs are $.99, toss your money in the gumball machine and pick your flavors. There have never been more choices, and it has never been easier to make them. But this ease of use comes at the expense of listener unity, and we’ll never again be one nation under a groove, captivated by the same song or the same album. Music is no longer funneled through a handful of sources, which leaves us to our own devices to pick and choose our own masterpieces without the comfort of consensus.

I have friends who are serious, active music fans. They work to keep up with the latest bands, and some of them have little time for anything made before 2007 or so. I think of this as the “loaf of bread” theory of listening, wherein music is a perishable item that shouldn’t be enjoyed beyond a certain prescribed shelf life. But a more charitable analogy might be sports-related: every sports fan admits the greatness of the 1960’s Boston Celtics, but no rational person thinks those teams would hold up against today’s athletes. Some music fans feel the same way about “classic rock” – good for its time, but it doesn’t hold up against modern players.

And that’s one reason I get such a kick out of Eric Burdon & War’s ‘They Can’t Take Away Our Music’. It’s a bombastic, rip-your-shirt-off statement that the past is still great. I’ve previously referred to Burdon as “the kind of crazy uncle I almost regret never having” and he lives up to that billing here, wailing away about Billie Holiday and the power of song. The 2000s may produce some true, time-tested masterpieces, but the LCD Soundsystems and Amy Winehouses are mere tributaries of great flowing bodies like Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Cooke and Lady Day…

Listen: They Can’t Take Away Our Music

Masterpiece: The Legendary Dial Masters

5 August 2010

[Today: Bird is the word…]

Legend has it that a young Charlie Parker was badly embarrassed onstage in the mid-30s, when drummer Jo Jones tossed a cymbal at his feet and effectively gonged him off the stage. Whether or not that tale is true, it’s a fact that Parker spent the final three years of that decade practicing his saxophone for 15 hours a day, every day, in search of a new sound. What he found would change the history of popular music.

Parker: “I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” It was also the birth of Bebop – a lightning quick evolution of Jazz that almost overnight made the big band and swing music that preceded it sound like something from a previous century.

Charlie Parker wasn’t just fast – he also played with a harmonic dexterity and rhythmic imagination that caused his jazz peers to re-think the way they approached their instruments. If Bird drove his horn like a race car at 180 mph, he was also taking it through hairpin turns without touching the brakes. Unfortunately, his blazing speed on the sax and debilitating (and eventually fatal) heroin habit have overshadowed the music itself. Like Robert Johnson and Elvis Presley, Parker’s legend has nearly swallowed his music whole.

Thankfully, The Legendary Dial Masters, Volumes 1 & 2 captures Bird in full flight, and serves as living proof of his genius. Recorded in February and March of 1946 (Volume 1) and February and November of 1947 (Volume 2), these are perhaps the most accessible sides of his turbulent and challenging career. He mainly worked for three labels during the 1940s and 50s – Savoy, Dial and Verve. His Savoy recordings are truly impressive and made his name, but at times the sheer velocity of those sessions renders them less than enjoyable. Many people consider his Verve albums to be masterpieces, but to my ears they sound like sad miscastings of a talented artist. Making Charlie Parker play with strings is like setting a beautiful diamond in tinfoil.

At the very least, Parker’s mid-period Dial recordings are an excellent place to get familiar with his music. He forged a new sound out of old ballads (‘Ornithology’ for instance, mutated from a lick in ‘How High The Moon’), and the 35 songs collected here are nothing less than the foundation of Bebop. Bird OD’d in March of 1955, at only 34 years of age, but his music is still very much alive…

Listen: Dexterity

Listen: Ornithology

Listen: Yardbird Suite

Doubleshot Tuesday: On The Road/The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

20 October 2009

[Today: Going further…]

On The Road | Jack Kerouac
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test | Tom Wolfe

“There’s always more, a little further – it never ends,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his classic 1957 novel On The Road, an account of his cross-country adventures with fellow Beats such as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. As “Dean Moriarty” (Kerouac’s publisher insisted he fictionalize the names of his friends), Cassady is one of the central figures of this book – a blur of motion and a speed demon behind the wheel – and the main connection between it and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book tracks the early history of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, one of whom happened to be Neal Cassady, driver of their psychedelic day-glo bus Further. The Beat scene (fueled by speed, booze and jazz) was very different from the psychedelic scene (LSD, marijuana, folk-rock), but Cassady jitters from the pages of one book and into the next without missing a beat.

Music also figures into both books. In On The Road, it’s used as a metaphor for the rhythm of Kerouac and Cassady’s travels. The Beats were inspired in part by the intense Be-Bop stylings of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and jazz features prominently in several passages, including Kerouac and Cassady watching performances by Slim Gaillard and George Shearing. By contrast, even when the Grateful Dead get involved, the music in Electric Kool-Aid… is just one part of the LSD-inspired happenings of The Pranksters. A quick look at the musicians mentioned in both books provides an illuminating primer on the differences between what was hip in the late-40’s/early-50’s and what was groovy the mid-60’s…

Musicians mentioned in On The Road:

Dizzy Gillespie
Charlie Parker
Louis Armstrong
Lionel Hampton
Stan Getz
Wynonie Harris
George Shearing
Slim Gaillard
Roy Eldridge
Hot Lips Page
Thelonious Monk
Billie Holiday
Lester Young
Anita O’Day
Willie Jackson
Lucky Millinder
Perez Prado
Duke Ellington

Musicians mentioned in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

Bob Dylan
Joe Cuba
Ornette Coleman
Martha & The Vandellas
Jimmy Smith
The Beatles
Roland Kirk
The Grateful Dead
Joan Baez
Mississippi John Hurt
Jefferson Airplane
Mothers Of Invention
Big Brother & The Holding Co.
The New Sensations
Slam Stewart

The last scene of Electric Kool-Aid… finds Kesey and company setting up one of their final acid tests, while a jazz trio called The New Sensations plays on stage. The Pranksters loop feedback into the P.A. system, and begin “rapping” over the jazz, causing the trio to stomp offstage in a huff. Tom Wolfe goes out of his way here to mention Slim Gaillard’s bassist, Slam Stewart – a clear homage to (and possible put down of) the sound of the Beat Generation.

In spite of differences in the attitudes, trappings, and music of their respective scenes, both the Beats and Pranksters were driven to grab hold of every minute and live intensely in the present. Kerouac: “Life is holy, and every moment is precious.” Wolfe: “Life is a circle and so it is the going, not the getting there, that counts.”

Listen: Laughing In Rhythm [Slim Gaillard]

Listen: Tomorrow Never Knows [The Beatles]

Buried Treasure: Blue’s Moods

30 November 2008

[Today: Blue Mitchell and the Hard Bop sound…]

Blue Mitchell | Blue's Moods

Bebop shook up Jazz in the mid-40’s in the same way that Punk disrupted Rock in the mid-70’s. In response to the staid, predictable sound of Swing – think Glenn Miller and/or Benny Goodman – Bop was an electric take on Jazz that featured lightning fast solos and opened new vistas of musical possibility. Behind the musical genius and larger-than-life figures of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Bop gained a foothold in the Jazz community, influencing a new generation of artists and forcing everyone else to sit up and take notice. Unlike Punk, Bop was a more technically complex strain of music, featuring double-time playing, asymmetrical phrasing, and intricate melodies. But like Punk, Bop was pooh-pooh’d by an older generation of musicians, even as it swept their brand of music into the dustbin of history.

This new direction was a shot in the arm for Jazz, but it wasn’t very danceable. In reaction to the Dizzying spectacle of Bebop, a faction of musicians created what (confusingly) became known as ‘Hard Bop’ – a more melodic form of Bop that incorporated elements of R&B, Blues, and Gospel. For example, most of the Blue Note albums of the late-50’s and 1960’s are Hard Bop. It was a style pioneered by Art Blakey and Horace Silver with their legendary group The Jazz Messengers, and when Blakey and Silver split in 1956, each started groups that apprenticed some of the most important Hard Bop players. These included trumpeter Richard ‘Blue’ Mitchell, who played with The Horace Silver Quintet from 1958 until 1964.

During that time Mitchell also recorded a number of excellent albums with his own ensembles, foremost among them Blue’s Moods from 1960. This is the only of Mitchell’s seven Riverside albums that features him as the exclusive horn, and it’s a doozy. Wynton Kelly (piano), Sam Jones (bass) and Roy Brooks (drums) are more than just accomplished sidemen – here they make music that would stand up on its own without Mitchell’s trumpet. But the moods alluded to in the album title are provided by Mitchell’s horn, whether he’s floating through a delicate melody (‘When I Fall In Love’), racing an offbeat tempo (‘Scrapple From The Apple’), or a little of both (‘I’ll Close My Eyes’). Blue’s Moods is an enjoyable, expansive listen, and a quintessential example of the Hard Bop sound.

Listen: I Wish I Knew

Listen: I’ll Close My Eyes

The 8-Track Diaries: Jazz

9 August 2008

It’s fun to picture a burly trucker barreling down Route 66 listening to a Coleman Hawkins 8-Track at full blast, but the scarcity of jazz in this format is pretty good proof that it didn’t happen very often. The 8-Track was mostly a medium for country music, and many 8-Tracks were sold at truck stops – hence, not a lot of jazz.

But some jazz did get manufactured in shiny plastic boxes, and some of it fetches a great deal on eBay these days. I once saw a copy of Bitches Brew on 8-Track on display in a North Beach record shop. I offered the owner $50 for it – and he laughed at me. “Not for sale,” he said, and he wasn’t budging. I haven’t seen Bitches Brew on 8-Track again, but I have found some fine jazz albums in the format…

Miles Davis | Live Evil

Lester Young | Soul Parade

Louis Armstrong | Greatest Hits

Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto | Getz/Gilberto

Eric Dolphy | The Greatness Of Eric Dolphy

Charles Mingus | Soul Fusion

Jimmy Smith | Greatest Hits, Vol. 2

Gene Ammons | Gene Ammons And Friends At Montreux

Roland Kirk | Left & Right

Charlie Parker | Summit Meeting At Birdland

Charlie Barnet | The Stereophonic Sound Of Charlie Barnet

Duke Ellington | Hail To The Duke

The Little Giant

25 July 2008

Hard-bop saxophonist Johnny Griffin died this morning in Availles-Limouzine, France. He was 80 years old. Diminutive in stature (he stood 5’5″) but large in sound, Griffin was a technically gifted player who displayed dazzling speed and remarkable touch on his instrument. He showed more sensitivity with a ballad than could rightly be expected of a man once called “the world’s fastest saxophonist”.

Griffin was an up-and-comer around the time be-bop was breaking out in the late 40’s, and he was deeply influenced by the style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The lightning fast tempo of be-bop was never far from his sound, and Griffin held onto it long after other artists had abandoned it for newer and more profitable styles. He often offset his tremendous speed showcases with ballads and blues, but it’s clear that be-bop was the rhythm of Johnny Griffin’s heart beat.

He played alongside luminaries such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Art Blakey, and made a number of fine albums in the 50’s and 60’s for Riverside and Blue Note Records. A Blowin’ Session (1957) is considered his masterpiece, but we also recommend Introducing Johnny Griffin (1956) and The Little Giant (1959).

The world lost another jazz great today. Johnny Griffin may not have been a household name, but he’ll be sorely missed around these parts.

Listen: The Message (from the album The Little Giant)