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Tells you what jazz is

This rare album is a happy blend of swing, be-bop and the as yet unborn hard bop. Suffusing the jazz spontaneity is the genius of Charlie Parker

Jam Session
Verve Records

Having died just when long-playing records were becoming common, Charlie Parker left behind very little that was longer than the standard three-minute format of 78 r.p.m. recording. Later compilations for LP or CD of his work are usually made up of lots of short tracks from the days of 78s.

The Massey Hall concert was, however, was issued on LP, of which I have a tape made from a not-too-bad VOA shortwave broadcast. Another recording I heard on the VOA - several times, in fact, since it was a favourite of the incomparable compere Willis Conover - was of a jam session in 1952. By great good fortune, I came across a CD of this, Charlie Parker: Jam Session, in Bangalore some time ago.

Jam sessions were occasions on which musicians who usually didn't play together did so to exchange ideas and indulge in some friendly rivalry, rather like the jugalbandis of Indian music. The resulting improvised solos frequently set new standards of excellence and excitement. They started in the '30s and '40s, and got a fillip from Norman Granz, an impresario who brought the jam session onto the concert platform. He also started the famous jazz label of Verve Records, the publisher of this immortal jam session in Los Angeles in July 1952.

Granz assembled the three greatest alto saxophonists till that time. Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington's star for decades, was famous for his smooth glides between notes and the emotional and lyrical intensity it gave his music. Benny Carter, another swing alto saxophonist, was equally famous as a soloist in several settings and capable of matching the be-boppers. And then there was Parker.

Two swing tenor saxophonists added to the electric atmosphere. Ben Webster was famous for being breathy and rough by turns, while Flip Phillips was neither, but elegant sounding. Charlie Shavers, a swing trumpeter, was known for ripping off solos with the best be-boppers. All had been in big bands and small groups, and thus used to pitching in with solos as much as the be-boppers.

Oscar Peterson on piano was rumoured to have 22 fingers, so nimble were both his hands with the melody and the harmony. Ray Brown on bass, like Peterson, had experience both in a supporting role as part of a rhythm section and in taking extensive solos, frequently as part of Peterson's own trios and quartets. Barney Kessel was a clean, strong-plucking guitarist, again good at both soloing and backing. J C Heard's drumming was quiet, efficient.

The record has just four numbers in some 62 minutes, climaxing with Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love. This is a fast-paced piece, a favourite of Parker's for experimenting with both the melody and the harmony.

On this version, everyone improvises even the basic theme, which the listener familiar with Porter's tune recognises only subliminally. Peterson sets the pace punishingly before Webster tosses in the first solo, breathy and rough. Shavers takes the music into some of the highest notes audible to the human ear; then Hodges substitutes fireworks with soothing, smooth sounds. Kessel, Carter, and Phillips come in with their contrasting styles before Parker launches into his inimitable jagged melody lines.

Peterson takes another solo before Ray Brown goes into the deep end on the bass. An interplay of short solos among the saxes and trumpet ends with Shavers again hitting the high notes before a brief drum roll by Heard.

The opening piece, Funky blues composed by Hodges, is a contrasting slow-paced, relaxed number with the compelling beat characteristic of funk jazz. Hodges takes a laid-back solo, then Parker and Carter follow immediately, as if giving the student a lesson in appreciation with their different styles. Interludes by Peterson and Kessel precede solos from Shavers, Phillips and Webster. Peterson and Hodges return for solos before an insistently rhythmic crescendo.

Funky blues set the stage for the session by juxtaposing the three altoists and then the two tenorists, so contrasting in their styles that by the end of the record the discerning listener can tell them apart without being told who's who. (The solo order for each track is helpfully included in the sleeve notes.)

Sandwiched between these two numbers are Jam blues, a faster-paced piece, and a medley of several jazz and pop standards, each compenent showcasing the soloing of one of the musicians. On the whole the album shows the pyrotechnic potential of ten jazz musicians unfazed by the unfamiliar collective ambience in which they operate. The music is a happy blend of swing, be-bop and the as yet unborn hard bop, hitting the pinnacle of the spontaneity for which jazz is known. And suffusing it is the inspiring genius of Charlie Parker.


Charlie Parker, heroin-addicted, died at 35, but not before playing divine music. Read feature Two lives' work in one lifetime

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