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Charlie Parker: The Washington Concerts

Parker’s celebrated 1953 ad hoc appearance with The Orchestra makes its first compact disc appearance here. That is reason enough to welcome this CD, but the album includes a bonus: Six previously unreleased small group concert performances from 1952 and 1953, with Parker in peak form. At Washington, D.C.’s Club Kavakos he accommodated himself, without rehearsal, to a big band that included established young musicians such as Jack Nimitz, Earl Swope and Charlie Walp. Equipped with, as Bill Potts writes in his liner notes, “nothing except a great deal of common sense and a fantastic pair of ears,” Bird took wing. He soared over and swooped through eight arrangements by Potts, Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Timer and Jack Holliday. Sensing modulations and key changes as they happened, or slightly before, he displayed levels of musicianship and creativity rare in any circumstance, much less in the carefully charted territory of arrangements he had never seen or heard. One of the many pleasures of the set with The Orchestra is hearing Parker apply his genius to pieces not otherwise found in his discography, among them “Thou Swell” and “Something to Remember You By.”

In a 1952 Howard Theater jam session, Bird shares the stage with trombonists Kai Winding and Earl Swope, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, trumpeter Charlie Walp and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Bird and Byrd are featured on “Scrapple From the Apple,” Parker and the others on “Now’s the Time,” with fine solos from all hands and a memorable series of riffs evidently instigated by Parker.

The high point of four quartet pieces recorded at the Howard Theater in 1953 is an “Anthropology” far faster than the highest presto setting on my old Seth Thomas metronome. My conservative estimate is M.M. 310. At that velocity, rather than fall back on the cliches and stock phrases that would permit most players to survive the tempo, Bird cranks up his imagination for some of his most original improvisation of the early 1950s. His playing in a series of four-bar exchanges with drummer Max Roach is, if anything, even more ecstatic. When it’s over, we hear him laugh.

Originally Published