Musings on Bird, III: Superlative Bird

Off the cuff notes and thoughts on Bird, Part III:
Photo by William Gottlieb, Three Deuces, NYC, ca. 1947, public domain

It's hard to say with confidence what the "most ______" of Bird's recorded output is without comprehensively surveying the territory, which is fairly well-defined at this point, but would still require at least 72 hours of time on hand and access to the complete discography. 

I believe I've heard most of the publicly available recordings, although there are still a number of recordings that I haven't been able to get a hold of—most notably tunes from a spring 1951 performance supposedly in Boston, as well as a quartet performance as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic from November 1948. What surprised me most wasn't any single holy grail-type recording, but instead the consistency of the entire body of work, which is almost unerringly excellent and many times great. 

At first, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I felt that I'd heard all I could gather; I was anticipating hearing some sort of missing link or anomalous recording that would provide some sort of profound insight into Bird's more commonly known work, but of the mature material (for me, roughly 1945 onward), it really all sounds like Bird more or less fully-formed, with variations and changes in tendencies over time. 

I think it speaks to Bird's brilliance as well as his immense hard work early on that his melodic and rhythmic vocabulary became so refined and specific by his early 20s. Unlike his foremost predecessor, Lester Young, and the major saxophone innovator after him, John Coltrane, the relatively mature Bird of his late 20s and early 30s demonstrates far less experimentation than the middle and later periods of both Pres and Trane, both of whom undergo extensive transformations in their improvisational practice. 

They sound notably different over time with regards to phrasing, tone, and vocabulary to differing degrees, but Bird's sound, phrasing, and vocabulary are far more comparable over his 1944-54 decade of recorded work than, say, Coltrane's work from 1957-1967 or Young's from 1940-1950 (that said, Trane and Pres were both farther along in life's journey than Bird relatively at that pointboth in their 30s by the time notable transformations became audible on recording). 

It's the tired counterfactual, but if Bird had lived, would his playing have transformed radically in the same way late Young and late Trane did? It's impossible to say, of course, but the very boundedness of Bird's personal style suggests not; I can't say for sure, but I would guess from listening to Bird's recordings that Bird learned and practiced very differently from how musicians studying today do, most notably in that he probably wasn't working from harmony and theory and building up. 

As the supremely fluent speaker of a vast but still circumscribed language, I imagine that he must have learned and developed phrases first, in conjunction with navigating harmony and song forms, but unlike modern musicians, with the emphasis on the melodic-rhythmic vocabulary and the application to practical use happening simultaneously or after the fact. I haven't done a deep study of this, but I've noticed moments in solos where he stops during a melodic sequence, and after a pause, either restarts the phrase or else continues the sequence of pitches to their apparently predetermined conclusion (based on recurrences of the same sequence elsewhere). 

The rhythmic delivery of the sequence of pitches in the melody can vary a great deal, but the sequence itself is preserved to a significant extend with minor alterations. That suggests to me that Bird worked out the melodic sequences and refined them until they were what he had in mind, and rhythm became the vessel for their articulation and deployment in seemingly unlimited contexts.

In my experience, it's sometimes much harder to repeat myself verbatim or to play within a more restrictive set of melodic parameters than it is to play more loosely and abstractly. Although it's challenging to try to not repeat yourself in the style of a Warne Marsh or post-Tristanoite, I perhaps admire even more the discipline of aesthetic commitment and self-editing that would is so evident in Bird's improvisations. 

All the above to say that, in listening to a lot of Bird, although I was most surprised by the relative uniformity (in a good way) of his recorded work, I did observe some occasional extremes, which I'd like to share here now:

Fastest Bird: "52nd Street Theme," March 1950, Cafe Society Downtown, NYC

The obligatory caveat here is that speed/pitch correction is entirely relevant, but I do think this is up there. Even if it's a little bit sharp/fast, this may be the fastest tempo where both Bird and the rhythm section are burning through changes together (rather than Bird cramming in some double time on a more medium tune, where he might play "faster," but not in a sustained sense). It's a surprising to me that the fastest performance wouldn't have been with Max Roach, the king of up tempo bebop as he proved with his quintet with Clifford Brown (e.g. "Cherokee" from Live at the Bee Hive).

There's an extremely fast "Anthropology" from 1953 in Washington D.C., and elsewhere I've written about an extremely fast "Dizzy Atmosphere" from the Benedetti collection recorded on March 31, 1948 at the Three Deuces, but actually a low-fi bootleg from early spring 1949 at the Pershing in Chicago might be faster (with the pitch holding steady):


The next runners-up would likely be something from the William Henry apartment sessions in May and June of 1950, but the pitch is pretty high on those, so I imagine they wouldn't be quite as imposing once speed and pitch corrected.

Longest Bird (32-bar form): "Scrapple From the Apple," April 12, 1951, Christy's Restaurant, Framingham, MA

In terms of choruses on a 32-bar form, I believe that this version of "Scrapple" is tied at 9 choruses with Bird's legendary solo on "Lester Leaps In" from September 1952, but since the "Scrapple" tempo is slower, this solo is longer in clock time (roughly 4 1/2 minutes) compared to "Lester Leaps In." 

It makes sense that he stretched out on "Scrapple," considering it was an after hours session for musicians with Bird as a guest of honor of sorts. On the 15-minute plus track, Wardell Gray plays an extremely long solo before Bird and even plays the master's opening phrase from the Dial master take to his face, so that perhaps gave Bird the incitement he needed to let loose. The trading is also notable for the spirited exchange between the horns, including one moment that reveals the presence of Eddie Curran, as discussed in the footnote to a previous post. A transcription of this solo is available in Thomas Owens's dissertation.

Again, the apartment sessions from 1950 are runners-up, but many of the tracks are spliced in such a way that show that Bird was really taking two solos on the same tune with a soloist in between (more on that here). A notably extended solo is also heard on an unreleased tape in the Louis Armstrong House Museum collection, which is the only recorded version of Bird on "Three Little Words" at a jam session with Big Nick Nicholas, suggested to be sometime in 1950-51 during his extended soloing period. This makes another tune that can be compared between Pres and Trane, both of whom also recorded versions of the song.

Longest Bird (12-bar blues): "Cool Blues," March 24, 1952, Loew's Valencia Theatre, Jamaica, Queens

As a sequel of sorts to Jen-Kuang Chang's study of Bird's recordings of "Now's the Time," it would be worthwhile to study all the extant recordings of "Cool Blues," which was his most-recorded original blues composition and apparently the one he liked to stretch out the most on. In fact, the tune is the one he recorded most behind "Ornithology," of which Peter Losin's database lists 48 versions.

This is the formal record since Bird takes 14 choruses on this performance, his feature as part of the larger show with the Jerry Jerome All-Stars, and a transcription is also available in the aforementioned Owens dissertation. I haven't been able to find a copy of the "Ornithology" from this broadcast, so if anyone has any leads, I'd be most appreciative.

In terms of runners-up, the "Cool Blues" from February 1953 at Chez Paree in Montreal is actually about the same length in clock time (3 and 3/4 minutes), but is fewer choruses. Bird takes 13 choruses alongside Benny Harris, Al Haig, Charles Mingus, and Art Taylor at NYC's Open Door on July 26, 1953, and that is actually longer in clock time (just over four minutes), so it is the temporal record-holder:

Weakest Bird: "Groovin' High," January 29, 1949, Royal Roost, NYC

It pains me to include this, but considering that Bird's discography is virtually pristine otherwise on over 700 recorded solos, it would be truly superhuman not to show any flaws or limitations. Phil Schaap has a broadcast from July of 2010 addressing this topic, and although the 1946 "Lover Man" is widely known as a case of Bird not at peak physical capacity, in my mind this is much worse since he just stops playing after the garbled solo break. 

Since this is during the steady period of weekly airchecks from the Royal Roost from December 1948 through March 1949, we hear Bird the week before and after, and he sounds in top form, so clearly this was presented no enduring setback. In some ways, after listening to this break on repeat, it ends up having an appealing scrambled quality unto itself, not unlike some of the more recondite utterances from Wayne Shorter on the '65 Plugged Nickel recordings. Even in moments of apparent weakness, Bird has something important to tell you.

* * * * *

I better wrap it up here while I'm ahead, but there's so much more: the most unusual contexts Bird was recorded in (playing "Groovin' High" with Milt Buckner's organ trio or trading with tap dancer Ray Malone over "Donna Lee" with accordion accompaniment), or the one-off rarities (Bird playing over a strings arrangement of "Stardust" at Rockland Palace or blowing on "Limehouse Blues" with a 27-piece big band), or the instances of Bird learning the changes on the fly ("Four Brothers" with Woody Herman or "Roundhouse" as a guest with big band in DC).

I'll close with this instead: every instance of Charlie Parker saying "Salt Peanuts" in chronological order, including a mischievous substitution of "La même chose" during his triumphant week in Paris in 1949: