The great jazz alto saxophonist Charlie Parker ("Bird") recorded several sessions in the late 1940s and early 1950s with a full string orchestra. Originally released on several records, the results of these sessions are now available from the Verve label on the CD "Charlie Parker with Strings: The Complete Master Takes". The recordings were controversial when first released, and remain so today. Many jazz purists hate them; others hail them as the culmination of Parker's career. I say this is an inspired and inspiring musical treat, and I listen to it all the time.
Parker, of course, was one of the founders of bebop. He was an accomplished improvisationalist whose recordings with other greats like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie revolutionized jazz. These amazing musicians took jazz and blues standards and made them their own, contributing creative flourishes and flights so unexpected that the original tunes are often unrecognizable under layers of improvisation. Jazz was changed forever by this complicated and original style of playing.
However, "Charlie Parker with Strings" is very different from Parker's other recordings. For one thing, each tune on this recording is a jazz classic; it contains no blues and no new, original songs. Parker plays with his usual brilliance, though here, more than in some of his other recordings, he puts the melody clearly front and centre. Throughout the recordings, Parker is backed up by a full suite of orchestral strings sticking strictly to the melodic lines. Joe Goldberg's wonderful liner notes comment that in this recording, "the strings were a carpet for [Parker] to walk on", and step out on it he does. Except for Mitch Miller on oboe and various pianists, all the solos are Parker's. There are no improvisational stylings from others for him to bounce off of; even on tour, the strings always played the exact same thing, though Parker's solos changed. And the arrangements - mostly by Joe Lipman - are almost hokey to modern ears, recalling cheesy 50s movie soundtracks or the I Dream of Jeannie theme song.
My postmodern sensibilities render the juxtaposition of Bird's virtuoso fiery solos with the lush romantic orchestration amusing and ironic, but I don't think Parker saw it that way. He had apparently wanted to play with strings for at least a decade, but his producers wouldn't let him. Finally at Verve Norman Granz gave him the chance he had been waiting for. Clearly Parker saw this as a unique and interesting artistic endeavour. And Parker was apparently in awe of these session musicians who played in the same unvarying style night after night, just as they admired him for his breathtaking creative skills. There's a colour dynamic at work too in these recordings, for orchestral music of this style is associated with classical music and white western culture, while jazz and especially bebop were indelibly linked to blacks. Parker was crossing over, taking his own style of playing and laying it on top of a white idiom, and a lot of people didn't like that. Too bad for them, methinks, and good on Charlie Parker. He did something new and different, something that he had long wanted to do, and he did it brilliantly, as always. A great collection.
Here's the facts, as given in the liner notes to my CD:
Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes
- Just Friends (by John Klenner and Sam M. Lewis)
- Everything Happens to Me (by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer)
- April in Paris (by Vernon Duke and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg)
- Summertime (by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward)
- I Didn't Know What Time it Was (by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)
- If I Should Lose You (by Ralph Ranger and Leo Robin)
above with Mitch Miller on oboe; Bronislaw Gimpel, Max Hollander, and Milt Lomask on violin; Frank Brieff on viola; Frank Miller on cello; Myor Rosen on harp; Stan Freeman on piano; Ray Brown on bass; Buddy Rich on drums; and Jimmy Carroll as arranger and conductor; recorded on November 30, 1949 in New York; these were on the original LP "Charlie Parker with Strings"
- Dancing in the Dark by Artheur Schwartz and Howard Dietz
- Out of Nowhere (by John W. Green and Edward Heyman)
- Laura (by David Raskin and Johnny Mercer)
- East of the Sun (and West of the Moon) (by Brooks Bowman)
- They Can't Take That Away from Me (by George and Ira Gershwin)
- Easy to Love (by Cole Porter)
- I'm in the Mood for Love (by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields)
- I'll Remember April (by Gene DePaul, Pat Johnson, and Don Raye)
above with Joseph Singer on French horn; Eddie Brown on oboe; Sam Caplan, Howard Kay, Harry Melnikoff, Sam Rand, and Zelly Smirnoff on violin; Isadore Zar on viola; Maurice Brown on cello; Verley Mills on harp; Bernie Leighton on piano; Ray Brown on bass; Buddy Rich on drums; and Joe Lipman as arranger and conductor; there's also an unknown xylophone player on track 8; recorded in late summer 1950 in New York, and included on "Charlie Parker with Strings"
- What is This Thing Called Love? (by Cole Porter)
- April in Paris
- Easy to Love
- Rocker (by Gerry Mulligan)
above with Tommy Mace on oboe; Ted Blume, Sam Caplan, and Stan Karpenia on violin; Dave Uchitel on viola; unknown cellist; Wallace McManus on harp; Al Haig on piano; Tommy Potter on bass; Roy Hayes on drums; recorded September 17, 1950 at Carnegie Hall and released on the "Jazz Concert" LP
- Temptation (by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed)
- Lover (by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)
- Autumn in New York (by Vernon Duke)
- Stella by Starlight (by Victor Young and Ned Washington)
above with Al Porcino, Chris Griffin, and Bernie Privin on trumpet; Will Bradley and Bill Harris on trombone; Murray Williams, Toots Mondello, Hank Ross, and Stan Webb on various saxophones; a large string section, most of whose names are listed as unknown; Verley Mills on harp; Lou Stein on piano; Art Ryerson on guitar; Bob Haggart on bass; Don Lamond on drums; and Joe Lipman as arranger and conductor; recorded January 22 or 23 in New York and released as an EP entitled, surprise, "Charlie Parker with Strings"
- Repetition (by Neal Hefti)
above arranged and conducted by Hefti; with Vinnie Jacobs on French horn; Doug Mettome, Al Porcino, and Ray Wetzel on trumpet; Bill Harris and Bart Varsalona on trombone; John LaPorta on clarinet; Sonny Salad, Murray Williams, Pete Mondello, Flip Phillips, and Manny Albam on various saxophones; Sam Caplan, Manny Fiddler, Sid Harris, Harry Katzman, and Zelly Smirnoff on violin; Nat Nathanson and Fred Ruzilla on viola; Joe Benaventi on cello; Tony Aless on piano; Curly Russell on bass; Diego Iborra on percussion; Shelly Manne on drums; recorded December 1947 at Carnegie Hall, and originally released on the 78 "The Jazz Scene"