Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Maybe the reason Charlie Parker is fast becoming the most unheard of the great jazz geniuses is that bebop is at once jazz's most difficult and most familiar style. But I suspect it's mostly hype. Virtually everything the saxophonist ever recorded, including plenty never intended for release, is in print. But where Armstrong and Ellington and Holiday and Coltrane and Coleman have corporate reissue programs behind them, Bird's most brilliant studio work is controlled by specialty labels. So the easiest Parker to find is also the schlockiest.

Not that last year's Confirmation: The Best of the Verve Years isn't worth hearing--and owning. The two CDs are endlessly astonishing, dominated by small groups that feature Davis, Gillespie, Monk, Hawkins, Roach. But since Verve headman Norman Granz was forever scheming ways to sell his troublesome property, with the choruses and strings and big bands that in retrospect demean perhaps a quarter of these tracks, looking harder will make you smarter. Audiophiles should seek out Denon's vibrantly immediate offering of limited-edition 20-bit Savoy remasters. The Charlie Parker Story, which includes the matchlessly definitive young Koko, is almost as classic in 16-bit. Like all the Denons, however, it suffers from the false starts and alternate takes collectors love and clods like us can do without.

Not so with a newly remastered distillation of Bird's most fertile period--possibly as an improviser, definitely as a composer. Charlie Parker: The Legendary Dial Masters (Jazz Classics) is among many other things as coruscating a collection of jazz "heads" as even Ellington or Monk ever put in one place. The playing, by Bird and many of the above coconspirators, is as quick and witty and painful and startling as you could hope. And you won't be able to get the damn tunes out of your head. Who could ask for anything more?

Playboy, May 1996


Apr. 1996 June 1996