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Apart from a trove of bootlegged live performances, Parker made virtually all of his recordings for only a few labels. But you won’t find any of his contemporaneous albums on this list — because there weren’t any.
Before the debut of the LP in 1948, the 78-RPM single ruled the roost. Jazz artists didn’t enter the studio to create 40 minutes of music. They usually recorded four songs per session, each tune under three minutes, with no concern for how these might fit together. (All of Parker’s seminal recordings belong to this group.) Collectors would store their 78s in hardbound books resembling photo albums, but with record sleeves instead of pages. If you filled one such book with Parker records, you had a Parker “album.”
The first LPs gathered eight or 10 previously issued singles onto one platter (retaining the terminology) and today’s CD anthologies continue in that vein. So choosing an anthology won’t compromise authenticity; most of this music wasn’t conceived as part of an “album” in the first place.
Early Bird (Stash)
Here are Parker’s first recordings as a young star with Jay McShann’s Kansas City orchestra. Take his 1940 solo on “Lady Be Good” — recorded as a 20-year-old — and run it half-speed; you’ll hear the connection to his idol Lester Young writ large. His 1942 version of “Cherokee” heralds the future. The tracks sound their age, but you’re not here for the audiophilia.
Best of the Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy)
Welcome to the birth of bop. From 1944-48, Parker made most of his recordings for these two labels, with such similarly hallowed fellow insurgents as Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Duke Jordan and Miles Davis. These tracks include virtually every Parker composition you can name. It’s the bebop canon.
Best of the Complete Live Performances on Savoy (Savoy)
On stage, Parker (like all musicians of the time) could escape the shackles of the three-minute single. From late 1948 to spring 1949, live broadcasts from the Royal Roost in New York brought his riveting extended solos to radio listeners, including a bootlegger named Boris Rose, who recorded them off the air for later release.
Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (Verve)
In 1949, Parker’s quest for cultural “legitimacy” — at a time when opinion-makers equated that term with classical music — led him to record several tunes with orchestral accompaniment. The largely formulaic arrangements run the gamut from cringey to “not bad.” But Parker’s solos offer an improbable mixture of technical genius and pure melody, a combination that brought a new level of fame.
Bird and Diz (Verve)
This 1950 reunion marks the only record featuring the triumvirate of bop’s inventors: Parker, Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk, along with Curly Russell on bass. (The addition of big-band swinger Buddy Rich on drums remains controversial to this day.) They recorded only six tracks, all classics; this disc fills out the time with alternate takes and breakdowns.
Big Band (Verve)
After the commercial success of the strings sessions (above), Parker and his producer Norman Granz hungered for a more aesthetically rewarding set of arrangements. In 1952, this led to eight solid, swingingly played big-band charts over which Bird could soar. Rounding out this set are the only three tracks Parker recorded with the legendary arranger Gil Evans — with vocal choir, to boot.
South of the Border (Verve)
Dizzy Gillespie added Latin rhythms to the bop repertoire, but Parker also embraced that influence on occasion. The first came as guest soloist with Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra in the winter of 1948-49 (a collaboration he reprised three years later); Bird later led two sessions featuring two Cuban percussionists. They’re all in this collection, originally titled Fiesta when issued on LP.
Jazz at Massey Hall (OJC)
Recorded in performance (Toronto, 1953) this set was once nicknamed The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever, and you can appreciate the hyperbole. It brought together four original architects of bebop — Parker, Gillespie, Roach and pianist Bud Powell — in a quintet organized by bassist Charles Mingus, who first released it on his own short-lived label. How’s the music? Read those names again.
One Night in Washington (Elektra Musician)
Stories are legion about Parker’s ability to jump into an unfamiliar situation and perform as if he’d rehearsed for weeks. These eight tracks, recorded in concert in 1953, provide the proof, as Parker guest-starred with an excellent big band in the nation’s capital, producing one jaw-dropping solo after another. (Several small-group tracks, also from D.C., round out the disc.)
Bird at the High-Hat (Blue Note)
Tail feathers: Parker was recorded on only five instances following the 1954 live broadcast that closes this album. (Bonus: Bird speaks! — with famed disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin — between tunes.) Backed by the house band at the Hi-Hat in Boston, Parker sounds almost as strong as ever; 14 months later, he was gone.
And this: The double-CD Confirmation: Best of the Verve Years contains several tunes from each of the Verve discs (and others) mentioned above. And if you want just one starter set covering Bird’s entire career, the omnibus Yardbird Suite (Rhino) will do the trick, - Neil Tesser