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Bird’s Unfinished Business

"Unheard Bird" is a holy grail for Charlie Parker devotees

Verve's new "Unheard Bird" is a holy-grail collection for devotees of Charlie Parker

The first Charlie Parker collection I ever owned was a mixtape, dubbed onto both sides of a Maxell cassette. Made at my persistent urging by a Bird-crazy Latin teacher at my high school, the tape was an admirable survey of the alto saxophonist’s known discography. There were rough gems from his Savoy years, choice selections on Dial, a few confectionary morsels from Charlie Parker With Strings. And in what seemed at the time like a collector’s quirk, my teacher had littered the trail with false starts and incomplete takes: an off-kilter “Ko-Ko,” a thwarted “Parker’s Mood.” I didn’t give it much thought as I wore out the cassette in my car’s tape deck, but this tendency toward all-inclusiveness-toward a blinkered, warts-and-all voraciousness-was the best possible indoctrination to any life of Parker fandom.

I remembered that cassette recently while listening to Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes, a new archival release on Verve. Pieced together from a trove of studio recordings on Mercury and Clef between 1949 and 1952, it features Parker’s alto saxophone in formats ranging from a quartet to a big band to an orchestra. Originally produced by Norman Granz, these sessions show Bird in generally fine form, working his quicksilver magic in ways that can feel workmanlike but somehow never fail to spark. Comprising 58 previously unavailable session takes-some of them only a few seconds long, and others amounting to full alternate tracks-it’s an alluring if rather undifferentiated heap of material from an indisputable giant of jazz.

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