Music Review: Charlie Parker's 'Unheard Bird' — Plus, Easier Ways To Understand Him

Jul 19, 2016

Charlie Parker
Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes (Verve/Universal Music)

Sounding exasperated, someone in the studio production crew sighs “take three” after Charlie Parker’s imperfect version of “Passport,” one of 58 previously unreleased tracks on Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes.

Casual Parker fans might express similar annoyance at the idea of subjecting themselves to more than two hours of false starts, outtakes and other studio ephemera. But for Parker fanatics and jazz historians, the new two-CD set is like discovering rough drafts of sacred scripture.

Parker was 29 in the earliest sessions documented on Unheard Bird. He was 35 when he died in 1955, less than three years after its final recordings. But rather than foreshadowing the travails that would end his life, this is vital music suffused with joy.

The newly excavated material is culled from his work for Mercury Records, the final significant phase of Parker’s discography. Partly because he’s collaborating with elite musicians in state-of-the-art studios in New York, these Parker discards are singularly sumptuous.

Parker had already upended the jazz world with his innovations by the time he began his work for Mercury. Much of Unheard Bird contains producer Norman Granz’ attempts to place Parker in more commercially appealing settings than the undiluted bop that established his reputation.

An image from the liner notes of 'Unheard Bird'

The collection begins with four incomplete and alternate takes of “Okiedoke” at a session with a Cuban big band directed by Machito. Parker takes a slightly different tack on each attempt at the exhilarating rumba. The outtakes are followed by the version that was officially released, which provides invaluable context.

This format is repeated for the duration of Unheard Bird.

By definition, the unearthed outtakes are flawed. Sometimes the band isn’t in sync. Other takes are spoiled by slight distortion. But even inferior Parker can be thrilling. Hearing him continue to play after the rest of the band drops out on a false start of “Bloomdido” induces goosebumps. 

The central paradox of Parker’s career is that the bebop revolution he helped initiate ultimately diminished jazz’s popularity: Parker’s music is entirely accessible, but the musical insurrection he instigated made cerebral sounds rather than celebratory dance music. And although he’s the most famous musician to have emerged from Kansas City, Parker’s music has fallen so out of favor that precious few residents of his home town could name a Parker composition or hum one of his tunes.

On August 27, dozens of Parker’s admirers will gather at his grave in Lincoln Cemetery about five miles east of downtown Kansas City.  Many on hand for the commemoration of Parker’s birthday are likely to invoke the phrase “Bird lives.” Unheard Bird serves as another reminder that Parker’s forsaken music doesn’t deserve to be buried under six feet of public indifference.

For those who’ve spent long enough thinking they should understand Parker but still don’t, however, there are easier ways to begin.

Easier ways to understand Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker’s discography is littered with spotty bootlegs and indifferently packaged reissues. No single release provides a thorough overview of his tumultuous career, but five affordable albums provide worthwhile entry points.

Early Bird
Parker’s recordings with the Kansas City-based big band led by Jay McShann are currently available only on disreputable European record labels. Even so, hearing Parker’s roots provides a greater appreciation of his subsequent musical rebellion.

Best of The Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings
Several of the 20 tracks recorded from 1944 to 1947, including “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” and “Parker’s Mood,” are among the most profound works in jazz history.

Verve Jazz Masters
The 16-track collection serves as a fine overview of Parker’s stellar work for Norman Granz.

With Strings
Despicable sell-out or gorgeous career highlight? Parker’s orchestral sessions are the most polarizing component of his discography.

The Quintet: Jazz At Massey Hall
Parker’s decline was underway at this 1953 date with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach, but the white plastic saxophone Parker used at the all-star concert is the centerpiece of the collection at the American Jazz Museum.

Bill Brownlee’s writing appears weekly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. He blogs about Kansas City’s jazz scene at Plastic Sax.