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JAZZ | Spotlight

Taking Stock of Early Parker, Late Evans

October 22, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Charlie "Bird" Parker and Bill Evans were born nine years apart--Parker on Aug. 29, 1920, Evans on Aug. 16, 1929. Parker was 34 when he died, Evans was 51. Both are among the great iconic figures of jazz, and both were among its tragedies, ultimately struck down by the hazards and side effects of addictive life styles.

Two important new collections chronicle opposite periods in each of their careers. "Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings, 1944-1948" (****, Savoy), an 8-CD boxed set, encompasses some of the most creative years in the legendary alto saxophonist's relatively brief productive life (he died in 1955). The Bill Evans Trio's "The Last Waltz" (****, Fantasy), also an 8-CD box, was recorded during a San Francisco club appearance barely two weeks before Evans' passing.

Parker's recording history breaks into two major segments: the mid-'40s, when he primarily bounced back and forth between Savoy and Dial, and the period between 1949 and his death, when he recorded for Norman Granz's Verve label. There are, in addition, many radio broadcasts, concert tapes and such unusual items as the Dean Benedetti collection, recorded in 1947-48 by a Parker fan who followed Bird around with a wire recorder, turning it on for Parker's solos and turning it off for everything else, producing an invaluable series of snapshots of Bird in flight.

The Savoy and Dial sides, however, are core items, essential elements in the mid-20th century transformation of jazz. And they have been available prior to this collection, on LPs as well as CD packages, from each individual company. But this is the first time they have been assembled together, in chronological fashion. (Omitted are four CDs of live material, mostly from 1947-48, that have already been issued on CD by Savoy.)

"This is," notes producer Orrin Keepnews, "to the best of our knowledge and belief the closest one can hope to come to the Complete Early Bird."

The results provide an extraordinary overview of Parker at a time when his imagination was expanding by leaps and bounds, recording items--"Billie's Bounce," "KoKo," "Yardbird Suite," "Donna Lee," "Moose the Mooche," "Parker's Mood" "Scrapple From the Apple," among many others--that would become the founding repertoire of the bebop era. And all this when he was between the ages of 24 and 28, living a life of great excess and taking an obligatory break to serve time in Camarillo State Hospital in the latter half of 1946 because of his drug habit.

Keepnews' decision to include all the alternate takes and false starts present on the original LP recordings means that there are some slow-moving segments--four attempts to do "Romance Without Finance," a Tiny Grimes vocal number, for example. But it also means that there is the opportunity to hear alternate versions of "Billie's Bounce," "Now's the Time," "Thrivin' From a Riff," "Donna Lee," "Chasin' the Bird," etc. All of which afford illuminating opportunities, via the alternate take, to hear the Parker improvisational process in action--the manner in which he cobbled together solos from his own expansive collection of riffs and licks, the importance of blues elements in his phrasing, and the ineffable, driving swing that pervaded every note he played.

The set arrives a couple of months after what would have been Parker's 80th birthday and obviously makes a stunning holiday gift. Beyond that, it provides chapter and verse for a vital period in the work of an artist who is arguably one of the three or four most elemental jazz influences. And it's all still great music to simply sit down and enjoy.

The Evans collection charts a far different stage in a great performer's musical journey. Recorded incessantly, both in the studio and in live performance (Verve has already released an 18-CD boxed set, Fantasy/Riverside a 12-CD set, and Warner Bros. a six-CD live set), Evans must be one of the most documented artists in jazz history. So what's unusual about yet another collection?

Nothing much in terms of repertoire. Working with the then-youthful rhythm team of bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joe LaBarbera, he concentrated for the most part on familiar repertoire.

But something very special in terms of spirit and soul. Producer Todd Barkan suggests that Evans had "a sense of urgency" during the Keystone Korners engagement, a drive to somehow make sure that he said everything he had to say musically. Despite a poorly functioning liver, he refused medical assistance and ate poorly. Yet his playing is as richly rewarding as ever--and even more than that on some of the ballad passages, in which one can almost palpably experience the "urgency" noted by Barkan.

Given the number of jazz recordings released every month, it is easy for a writer--who, after all, receives review copies--to say this or that CD is absolutely vital. But there are times, and this is one, when no other recommendation will suffice. Evans could be as uneven as any jazz artist, and there were times in his career when, either due to personal problems or commercial considerations, his output fell below his own high standards. This collection, however, is prime, largely because Evans did precisely what he intended, the strength and vigor of his creative spirit triumphing in the final days of his life.

In that sense, the set is a perfect reflection of remarks he made to writer Len Lyons in "The Great Jazz Pianists--Speaking of Their Lives and Music." "I can tell you that, for me," said Evans, "technique is the ability to translate your ideas into sound through your instrument . . . a feeling for the keyboard that will allow you to transfer any emotional utterance into it."

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