Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Charlie Parker

  • Now's the Time [Verve, 1990] A+
  • Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection [Rhino, 1996] A
  • The Legendary Dial Masters [Jazz Classics, 1996] A+
  • In a Soulful Mood [Music Club, 1996] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Now's the Time [Verve, 1990]
Discographically, Bird on Verve is a mess, primarily but not exclusively due to the strings, orchestras, and choruses Norman Granz employed to market his prize--with the prize's enthusiastic cooperation, absolutely, but that does nothing to undercut the grandiose guff that gums up the Confirmation: Best of the Verve Years twofer. The 1950 Bird and Diz, which features a muffled Monk and isn't as badly damaged as might be by Buddy Rich's bombs, is a pricey import-only. And it isn't nearly as miraculous as this lucky yoking of two quartet sessions: the first 12/30/52 with Hank Jones-Teddy Kotick-Max Roach and the second 8/4/53 with Al Haig-Percy Heath-Max Roach. The recording strategy is pretty consistent: Parker states the theme with minimal help and plays till about 1:50, after which the other guys jam their choruses in before the three-minute mark. Of these, Roach's are generally the most musical, with Jones's fuller and solider than Haig's and the single solo Kotick gets room for higher in content than any of Heath's walks, which do saunter some as his half proceeds. But the core is 25 minutes of unimpeded Bird. The two "Cosmic Rays" should be one at most, and four takes of the midtempo blues "Chi-Chi" is one too many, although the CD-only add-on is welcome because it's where Parker drops the virtuoso boilerplate and sticks to what may be blues boilerplate but who cares. Everything else is superb: two standards, Parker's "Laird Baird" sounding like a standard itself, the non-rote virtuosity of two lightning-quick "I Got Rhythm"-based "Kim"s, the only studio version of his oft-covered "Confirmation," and the definitive rendition of the title original, which in 1949 provided r&b journeyman Paul Williams the materials for a dance smash called "The Hucklebuck" that isn't the first rock and roll record but deserves a nomination. A+

Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker Collection [Rhino, 1996]
Because Dial was where he changed history most consistently, 14 of these 38 tracks are also on The Legendary Dial Masters. But despite the redundancy, both newcomers and fans will find his first cross-label, legit-plus-bootleg survey a gratifyingly listenable addition to his discography--two and a half hours free of outtakes, vocalists, Norman Granz, and the other dumb distractions his admirers contend with. His alto pervades every track. Even the live strings belong. A

The Legendary Dial Masters [Jazz Classics, 1996]
It's absurd for jazz's nonpareil improviser to have fallen into semiobscurity among new seekers for whom Parker and Coltrane and Davis and Armstrong are equally historic because they're equally dead. No one else has ever articulated so many ear-boggling, mind-expanding, stomach-churning, rib-tickling musical ideas so easily--so brilliantly--so insouciantly--so passionately--so fast. The two-CD Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years makes up for Norman Granz's get-rich-slow schemes--Ella, Machito, Gil-Evans-ruins-Cole-Porter backup chorus, big bands, fucking strings--with small-group genius. And while it's stretched to its 37 minutes by the alternate-take marginalia obsessives dote on, Savoy's audiophile remix of the younger, purer Charlie Parker Story sweeps 50-year-old music into you-are-there territory. So all I can say for this two-CD middle-period remaster is that it's his peak. The secret is twisted heads with magic titles like "Dexterity" and "Scrapple From the Apple" and "Klact-Oveedes-Tene"--jokily virtuosic tunesmanship that suited his arcane harmonic interests the way 'Trane's simpler themes went with his modalism. And even if you believe improvisation is pretentious, arty, or male, Parker's outpourings are hard to resist in three-minute doses. Monk is definitely my man. Coltrane is probably yours. Armstrong is God. But Bird is It. A+

In a Soulful Mood [Music Club, 1996]
Compiled by UK music journo Roy Carr, this budget take on Parker's Dial sessions is findable cheap used and has become a favorite of mine by the odd strategy of skipping his twistiest heads. Although the two-disc Legendary Dial Masters is now collector-priced, longer Dial collections designated 1 and 2 are buyable as separate items, and the first consists almost entirely of originals that include the omitted "Dexterity," "Bongo Bop," and "Dewey Square" although not "Scrapple From the Apple." Worth owning. But in keeping with a generic title the label employed for many lesser jazz comps, what happens here is different. Midway through, originals give way to standards that begin with an "All the Things You Are" that's as inspired as Parker ever got and damn right soulful. If he'd had the strength of mind, he could have broken pop as the king of the intelligent makeout instrumental without getting near a violin. A