Various Artists: The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions

To understand the significance of Dial Records, a good place to start is the tune “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” Camarillo is 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, where Dial was founded in 1945 by Ross Russell, the young owner of the Tempo Music Shop, the record store he had opened the year before. The Camarillo State Mental Hospital is where Charlie Parker landed after being arrested for public nudity following a disastrous 1946 Dial session at which a whiskey-dosed Bird had trouble standing, much less playing in tune.

After getting out of the hospital in December, Parker showed up at Hollywood’s C.P. MacGregor Studios on Feb. 26, 1947, for a Dial session with four new compositions, including “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” The “relaxing” in the title was as important as the “Camarillo,” for the 12-bar blues was taken at an unhurried pace, allowing Bird to emphasize his astonishing lyricism rather than the athletic speed that had marked his Savoy recordings on the East Coast.

“They are played too fast,” Parker told Russell. “They are not my kind of music. I have my own tunes I want to record.” Bird signed a contract with Dial only after getting the authority to choose his own tempos, repertoire and sidemen. “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” with its arresting melodic content and surprising harmonic inventions, is just one of the jazz classics that resulted from that freedom. Other Parker-composed jazz standards that originated at Dial include “Moose the Mooche,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology,” “Bird of Paradise,” “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Klact-Oveeseds-Tene.”

“Relaxin’ at Camarillo” also sounded better than the Savoy sessions because Russell took advantage of the fact that Hollywood had the finest recording studios in the world in the late ’40s-not because of jazz or pop music, but because the local movie studios wanted the best audio quality for their soundtracks. Backing up Bird on the four takes of the song are such fellow Dial bandleaders as saxophonist Wardell Gray, trumpeter Howard McGhee and pianist Dodo Marmarosa.

All of these intersecting themes are documented on The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions, a nine-CD, 185-track box set newly released by Mosaic Records. This is essentially a re-release of a Japanese box set from 1995, The Complete Dial Recordings, with much the same tracks and notes, albeit with remastered sound that brings new clarity to these performances. Of those 185 tracks, including all existing alternate takes, 101 feature Parker, 82 as a leader (he’s also heard backing up Dizzy Gillespie, Red Norvo and singer Earl Coleman).

Dial’s bestseller was not one of its Parker discs, however; it was “The Chase” by the Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray Quintet. This nearly seven-minute-long recording was spread over two sides of a disc and featured the tenor-sax leaders recreating one of their famous horn battles from the nightclubs in South Central L.A. This may lack the historical importance of Parker’s bebop inventions, but it’s an undeniable pleasure to hear the gruff, brawny Gordon trade phrases with the sweeter, more agile Gray-and pleasure is what made it sell. Gordon, a native Angeleno, made his first important recordings for his hometown label, including an attempt to duplicate the success of “The Chase” with “The Duel,” featuring Teddy Edwards.

Marmarosa, a gifted pianist who never realized his potential, made his most important recordings for Dial, not only as part of Parker’s rhythm section but also as co-leader of a sextet with McGhee and as leader of an unusual trio featuring drums and cello. Marmarosa was never the same after a beating by five sailors in Philadelphia, and his Dial sides are a tantalizing hint of what might have been.

The two dates with Gillespie were hampered by chaotic sessions and inferior sound, problems that prompted Russell to move to more professional studios. There he recorded Gordon with Melba Liston, Erroll Garner playing solo piano and Fats Navarro with and without vocalist Coleman. Except for two outlier sessions, all the Dial jazz recordings were made in a 21-month period between Feb. 5, 1946 and Dec. 17, 1947. Much of it is enjoyable, even admirable, but Dial Records will always be remembered for its immortal Parker recordings, every bit as essential as the groundbreaking Savoy sessions and definitely better than the valuable but inconsistent Verve sides to come.

For many of his Dial sessions, Parker’s trumpet foil was the 19-to-21-year-old Miles Davis. Davis acquired habits both good and bad from his mentor, and the good ones unquestionably led to the brilliance of Davis’ later career. But there are only occasional hints of that future glory in Davis’ tentative solos in these sessions. The youngster who shone brighter was the 23-year-old Max Roach, who joined Parker’s band when the saxophonist and Dial moved their operations to New York in 1947. Roach was already a very smart, very muscular drummer who could absorb Parker’s odd rhythms and throw them back at the leader with a new twist every time.