The Complete Live Performances on Savoy
In jazz, “cool” as a full-fledged style starts with tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Young was a natural contrarian, constitutionally incapable of playing the obvious lick in the obvious manner, a natural innovator whose personal style plugged into the music’s historical continuum. Sliding over bar lines, extending phrases and chordal expectations, he preached the primacy of the expressive line over the dictates of time signatures, playing Beethoven to Louis Armstrong’s Mozart, as it were. Not that he was alone in this, but his singular contribution to the ongoing freedom project was that cool thing, that attitude that comes from a combination of boredom and embarrassment with conventional assertions. It’s there in the way his melodic lines often curled away from the emphatic statement, in the nonchalant airiness of his tone, the no-big-thang effortlessness of his swing.
The Complete Savoy Recordings sounds like an imposing collection, but it all fits nicely on two CDs — five sessions spanning from April 1944 to April 1950. There’s some primo stuff here, but this isn’t really entry-level Young — some of the early sides he did with Count Basie or any of the later Aladdin sessions should be heard first. Young’s career and life are generally divided into two parts — before and after his painful Army experience — and this collection is early in his late period, when the brilliance began to seem less pure, but in some ways was more interesting. Two standout sessions are a boppish sextet date (1949), with Junior Mance on piano and Roy Haynes on drums, and a live Chicago quintet date (1950) with abysmal sound but with Young being as uninhibited as you can and still remain cool.
The Charlie Parker box set contains four discs covering 1948 to 1950, three of them consisting of live radio broadcasts from New York’s Royal Roost, complete with campy hip intros from the legendary Symphony Sid. What can one say after saying that Bird in action is still astonishing? Not that Parker was flawless — what junkie is? A January ’49 version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” (which he must have played a few hundred times) finds him fumbling with the melody and then, after a couple of notes, giving up on soloing, while his mercurial imagination seems slowed down considerably throughout a date taped a month later.
But the rest of the Roost dates are essential, exciting and somewhat overwhelming when taken in large doses. Disc four has a 1950 Chicago date, poorly recorded — the rhythm section disappears into the murk — and a classic and relatively clean-sounding Parker-Dizzy 1947 Carnegie Hall collaboration. But despite a little aural slippage and a little smack-induced hesitation, this set is an extraordinary documentation of another natural innovator, on the job, creating the future.
E-mail Richard C. Walls at firstname.lastname@example.org.