Charlie Parker (saxophone)
The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes (1944-48), Charlie Parker (1947-53), Charlie Parker With Strings – The Master Takes (1947-53), South of the Border (1948-52), Bird’s Best Bop (1949-53), The Cole Porter Songbook (1950-54), The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)
A famous quote from Charlie Parker pretty much sums up bebop, the style he invented along with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and (historians argue about that a lot) a few others: “Well, that night I was working over ‘Cherokee’ and, as I did, 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.”
Bebop, influential to this day, broke away from the dance styles that came before, creating a more complex music for listening, with faster tempos and with improvisation taking over from strict arrangements. That, in any case, is how I understand it.
Which brings us to how I feel about Charlie Parker. This may sound like sacrilege, but I admire rather than enjoy his playing. It might have to do with the tone, which doesn’t vary much, or the tense, nervous feel even on slower numbers. He never lets up and there is no chance to catch your breath.
Even so, you have to hear Charlie Parker if you want to try all the geniuses of the music and want to explore the roots of modern jazz.
The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes isn’t the complete version that gets Penguin Guide’s ultimate stamp of approval, but that one isn’t on Apple Music. This one doesn’t have the alternate takes, false starts and fluffs of the full set, but at 65 tracks it’s already almost overwhelming. PG thinks the 39 tracks of the Dial section belong in a core collection. Apple Music doesn’t have them separately, though.
Charlie Parker is a pick from the quartet sessions which have an iconic standing in jazz. It does include alternate takes and false starts, but that is something you have to live with in Parker’s discography. No doubt they are interesting to big fans and scholars, but they can become tiresome during a casual listen.
For an easy introduction to some of Parker’s finest, Penguin Guide recommends Bird’s Best Bop, which has the best Verve tracks and was clearly compiled with great care by knowledgeable people who picked the top takes of these famous tracks. It’s an easy, accessible disc.
Purists can be very disdainful about jazz-with-strings albums. They can become a bit slick and won’t be for everyone, but there are lovely, romantic tracks on Charlie Parker With Strings (only the Master Takes version on AM) which is made up of several sessions. There are also strings on The Cole Porter Songbook, a compilation that will please both fans of Parker and the great songwriter.
Bird buffs also disapprove of their man’s dabbling in Latin styles, captured on South of the Border. He plays with a Cuban orchestra and top drummers like Max Roach and Buddy Rich and certainly doesn’t sound like he wasn’t happy to do it. The sound is unbalanced at times, though, with the orchestra disappearing a bit when Parker comes in. Next up were a number of live albums, including Bird and Fats – Live at Birdland with trumpeter Fats Navarro apparently on fire during one of his last recordings. Unfortunately this hasn’t turned up on Apple Music.
But the greatest of the bunch, a legendary album, is there. The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall is only six tracks with not the best sound (it was taped by bass player Charles Mingus), but it’s on every critic’s list of greatest jazz concerts. one reason might be that the five musicians are perfectly tuned to one another and all in top form: Parker with daring solos, Dizzy Gillespie fierce on trumpet, Bud Powell busy and productive on piano, Max Roach driving all along with effortless drumming.
How much Charlie Parker you want to hear, is a matter of taste – so is how often you go back to him. But for just a taste, you have to hear the Massey Hall show – at least once.
Duke Pearson (piano)
Profile (1959), Tender Feelin’s (1959), Sweet Honey Bee (1966), Prairie Dog (1966), The Right Touch (1967), Introducing Duke Pearson’s Big Band / Now Hear This (1967, ’68)
Going back back and forth in the Penguin Guide is a good thing – I sometimes find someone I overlooked. Like Duke Pearson, another of the many jazz musicians who died tragically young and might have been a major figure if he had more time.
Pearson’s slinky version of “Black Coffee” on Profile might well be enough to get you interested. On this early album and Tender Feelin’s the ballads are played with a gentle, but unsentimental touch, while the upbeat tunes always have little surprises in the timing and chords. There are also hints of the funky grooves that would pop up later.
The next three small-group albums feature big names and have a swing and a swagger that’s pure ‘60s. Pearson makes a sextet sound big on Sweet Honey Bee. Odd that some tracks fade out like pop singles, but the energy level is lifted by Freddy Hubbard’s trumpet and Joe Henderson’s tenor sax.
PG considers Prairie Dog a “neglected masterpiece” and it has some deliciously funky parts after a magical start with “The Fakir”, which puts a graceful spin on the chords of “My Favourite Things”. My favourite in this bunch is The Right Touch, a fast-paced set by a star-studded octet. Not the easiest album to get into, but the more you listen, the more clever touches you pick up.
Pearson was excellent at arranging for larger groups and the two combined albums on Apple Music will please big band fans. The music is bright and clear, with striking originals and fresh takes on even the most overfamiliar standards.
No matter how many piano players you have in your collection, consider adding Duke Pearson. His small group work, especially, is comforting, joyful and quietly challenging.
Michel Petrucciani (piano)
Live at the Village Vanguard (1984), Power of Three (1986), Concerts Inédits (1993-’94), The Complete Dreyfus Recordings (1994-’97), Piano Solo – The Complete Concert in Germany (1997)
French-born Michel Petrucciani was a tiny man handicapped by the rare, painful glass-bone disease. It meant he easily got fractures – sometimes in his fingers while playing. He died tragically young, but in 16 years of recording he managed to produce a stack of memorable albums. Sample any of the live concerts to hear how he could enthral a crowd with his passionate, joyful playing.
He’s probably best heard live or solo, but there are fine studio group recordings as well. Just about the only albums to avoid are flirtations with fusion on Live (1991) and Trio in Tokyo (1997), where synth backing and overblown beats just cramp his style.
The earliest albums were for a small label and have been compiled on titles like Days of Wine and Roses (1981-’85) and 100 Hearts (solo, 1983), but they’re not on Apple Music.
The ideal place to start is with the Village Vanguard show from two years after he moved to America. The audience doesn’t clap for solos – it’s as if they’re pinned back to their seats by a wave of ideas and crashing rhythms and can only applaud rapturously at the end of each number.
Wayne Shorter’s trademark warblings on sax can be distracting on Power of Three. But with Jim Hall’s gentle guitar in the trio, it becomes a delicate and gentle live album. Interesting to hear the pianist playing with a lighter touch than usual.
Concerts Inédits is supposed to be three discs with solo, duo and trio. Apple Music, though, has the solo and the trio separately or together. The duo is mssiing, which is odd. The bone-hard piano sound on the solos might put you off even though the playing is great, while the trio is gentler yet full of energy.
Penguin Guide’s pick of Petrucciani is The Complete Concert in Germany, a double set of incredibly inventive and compelling playing in Frankfurt. Solo Live is an edited version of the concert, but it’s more satisfying to hear the full playlist as he put it together.
Apple also has the slightly intimidating The Complete Dreyfus Jazz Recordings, a set of ten albums for the label he joined in 1994. This includes the Frankfurt show, another at the Champs-Élysées and interesting novelties like a duet album with his guitarist dad, Tony. Not all of these are great and you might want to keep only your favourites. There is also The Complete Blue Note Recordings, but the frustration here is that you don’t always know which album you’re listening to.
I’m exploring everything Apple Music has. This remarkable musician didn’t make many ordinary albums – who knows which ones might just strike the right chord with you. Petrucciani deserves legendary status – fighting and enduring the challenges he had to face, producing jazz as inspiring as his life was.
Bud Powell (piano)
The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 1 (1949 & ’51), The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 2 (1951 & ’53), The Quintet: Jazz at Massey Hall (1953), The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 3: Bud! (1958), The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 5: The Scene Changes (1958), Powell Plays Parker (1957 & ’58)
Back in the ‘80s with my first jazz feeding frenzy I only knew the biggest names and had no idea which of their albums to buy. Bud Powell I got to know through a French double vinyl set – no idea where it fits into the discography.
It started with “I Remember April” and Bud’s version of this song remains one of my favourite jazz tracks. It has everything that gets me so excited about his playing. He keeps your brain busy with inventive chords and ideas. The music is always passionate and never sentimental. The right hand runs are melodious – never generic arpeggios or embellishments. The left hand nailing down powerful and often startling chords is another attraction. All of these make even such a familiar tune sound fresh.
Bud was a troubled soul battling with mental problems. What that did to his music is hotly debated. Here is an interesting summary from the official Bud Powell site: "In and out of mental hospitals, Bud's performing and recording career was erratic but remained at white heat until sometime in 1953, when the ravages of alcoholism, an earlier beating administered by police and electric shock treatments began to take a toll on his brilliant piano technique.
"Many critics feel that Bud's playing from 1954 until the end of his recording career in 1964 was unworthy of the high standard he had set in the earlier years. But others find great depth and beauty in both Bud's playing and in his compositions from the post-1953 period, even if the fiery technique was diminished." I'm with the group rating the later work as well.
The best sampler of the early work is Tempus Fugue-It (1944 to '50), according to the Penguin Guide. Unfortunately Apple Music doesn't have it, but a good alternative is the Complete Jazz Series discs. Try 1949-1950 with it's intense trio tracks and see how much deeper you want to dig.
The sound of the piano on many of Bud’s top albums has always puzzled me – it’s a little closed in, muffled at times and with distortion even on the remasters of the legendary sound engineer Rudy van Gelderen. He could be playing in a small club with draped walls and it's tempting to have an image of a tortured genius in a dark corner, slightly removed from his fellow musicians – not unresponsive to them, just preoccupied with what he wants to achieve.
"He was the foundation out of which stemmed the whole edifice of modern jazz piano. Every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from playing like him." – Herbie Hancock
I’m not a fan of alternate takes, the inevitable “bonus” on many remastered or re-released albums. To me the artist knows best and picked a specific version for a reason. I want to hear what they considered their best effort. In Bud’s case, though, I can live with the large number of alternates on the Amazing Bud Powell series (and even the tuneless humming) because every version offers something different.
There are many highlights, but spend some time with his own composition, “Glass Enclosure”, on Volume 2. It’s one of the most unusual (some say bizarre) jazz tracks you’ll ever hear. He was a significant composer, but Bud plays Parker is a good one for studying how he reworked standards, since even casual fans will know most of the tunes.
Piano is my favourite jazz instrument. After discovering many players who were new to me, I’ve come to realise that Bud Powell is not only my favourite pianist (so far), but my favourite jazz musician overall. If his music is the last I ever hear, I won’t complain.