Friday, June 18, 2010

June 18: Charlie Parker, "Ornithology"

Artist: Charlie Parker
Song: "Ornithology"
Album: Ornithology (single recording)
Year: 1946

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When it comes to musicians, the term “icon” is thrown around and doled out so often, that in some cases, a far more prestigious term is necessary to describe the most elite and influential artists the world has ever known.  Though the list is short, there are certain performers without whom, music simply would not have progressed, and one can see them as paragons of their particular genre.  Though he passed away at the age of thirty-four, it is nearly impossible to make a case that any other performer was as critical to the development of jazz as the band called “Bird,” Charlie Parker.  With his lightning-fast lines on his saxophone, along with the liked of Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, Parker is unquestionably one of the “creators” of the bebop sound, and one can further argue that remains the greatest saxophone player in music history.  Honing his sound alongside some of the finest players of the early jazz era, it was when he began playing with Gillespie that Parker truly began to progress.  Much of the early work of the bebop sound was never recorded due to the recording ban by the Musicians’ Union that ended in 1944, but shortly after the ban was lifted, Parker entered Radio Recorders Studio in Hollywood, CA and recorded a session that would cement his place high atop the jazz hierarchy.  Though he was responsible for a large number of jazz tunes that have become “standards,” there is perhaps no better an example of Charlie Parker’s superior ability, as well as the essence of the bebop sound than one finds within his legendary 1946 recording, “Ornithology.”

While bebop, like jazz itself, was a relatively freeform style, on “Ornithology,” there is a rather clear structure within the music.  Truth be told, the song represents the idea of a contrafact, which occurs when a musician creates a new work out of a previously existing piece of music.  In the case of “Ornithology,” Parker spins a new melody over the chord progression of the song, “How High The Moon.”  This link becomes more clear in “cover” versions of “Ornithology,” as often times, vocalists perform the lyrics to “How High The Moon” in a scat-style over the musicians.  Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to various incarnations of the bands of Powell and nearly every other “jazz giant” has taken a run at “Ornithology,” yet as is often the case, there is nothing quite like the original.  On the Parker version, he finds himself in the company of his fantastic septet, and as the track progresses, one can clearly hear that his band is doing everything they can to simply keep pace with Parker’s stunning musical lines.  For a majority of the song, Parker is trading licks and working in and around the playing of “Ornithology’s” co-writer, trumpet master, Benny Harris.  Their work on this song shows that the pair had an obvious musical chemistry, and Harris’ work here certainly played a large part in his own revered status within jazz history.  The rhythm section stays largely in the background on the recording, yet the speedy ride cymbal and almost dizzying bass prove that the players were certainly up to the task of following Parker’s lead.  Rounding out the septet is the scattered piano of Dodo Marmarosa, and this is largely where the “How High The Moon” chords live, and one can see his playing as a fantastic representation of the vocals of the song.

With his amazingly skilled musicians in tow, Parker wastes no time, as the moment “Ornithology” begins, he is already in top gear, ripping across the track with stunning energy and precision.  Even when he takes small pauses for emphasis, it is awe-inspiring to hear just how many notes Parker is able to pack into the song.  With this in mind, it is also quite remarkable that with such a compact musical progression, not a note is lost, and each note has a clear place and purpose.  While many players have impressed the masses by being able to play a long string of fast notes, few have done so with the feeling and flow that Parker brings to "Ornithology."  At no point of the three-minute run-time does Parker show any sign of slowing down or “cooling off,” and live recordings of the track show that there was far more within the song than was captured during the studio session.  In fact, the studio version almost seems to “cut off,” and one can only wonder why this version of the song seems almost “unfinished.”  Regardless, Parker’s performance on “Ornithology” shows how far beyond his peers he was in terms of both talent and feeling, and he is playing so fast, that one often has to listen to the song a few times through to simply catch everything that he is playing.  In every aspect, “Ornithology” is a tribute to Parker’s unparalleled skills, as not only is his performance extraordinary, but also due to the fact that the songs’ title is refers to the scientific name for the study of birds.

Due to the recording ban that overshadowed some of the most innovative years in music history, when the bebop sound finally found its way to recording studios, many saw the sound as “coming out of nowhere.”  Yet the fact of the matter is, Charlie Parker had been leading jam sessions to develop the style for quite some time.  These sessions featured many other jazz superstars, and it is likely due to this concentration of talent that the style was so well formed by the time the musicians entered studios.  Everyone from Gillespie to Max Roach to Coleman Hawkins released their interpretations of the new style, yet nothing compared to the power of the Parker composition, “Ornithology.”  The song itself sums up Parker in every way possible, and more than six decades after it was first released, it has yet to be equaled in terms of power or influence.  This song is the reason why Charlie Parker remains such a highly respected name across all musical genres, and without this recording, one can make a case that bebop would not have “caught on” in the manner that it did, nor re-shaped the other jazz styles that followed in its wake.  From Coltrane to Mingus, nearly every jazz player cites Charlie Parker as an influence on some part of their methodology, and one must assume that his septet was simply in awe of the blistering performance he delivered on “Ornithology.”  Rising far beyond a label such as “icon,” there is really no way to do justice to the influence and importance of Charlie Parker, and one can quickly learn just why he is such a hallowed figure in the world of music by experiencing his breathtaking performance on his 1946 composition, “Ornithology.”

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