2 collections of jazz’s best
Ring Dem Bells
Swing and Lionel Hampton go together like Scotch and soda. And they’re every bit as potent.
Exhibit A: a collection of 16 selections the vibist recorded between 1937 and 1940 with his own band, sidemen from Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman orchestras, and other artists.
The compendium, released almost simultaneously with Hamp’s death in July, is a splendid overview of the artist’s many talents. While his main axe was vibraphone, he also was a dandy drummer, exciting two-fingered pianist, and better-than-average vocalist. Not a bad composer, either.
It would have been easy for Bluebird to rehash the stuff Lionel recorded with Benny, and although his work with Goodman was excellent, it’s refreshing to hear him in a variety of settings, including one with the Nat Cole Trio (“Jack The Bellboy’) and another with the Goodman rhythm section (“Hampton Stomp”) that features Hamp’s flashy drumming.
In truth, it’s one gem after another. A spirited “After You’ve Gone,” showcasing the vibist, trumpeter Ziggy Elman and timekeeper Cozy Cole “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” with Hamp’s vocal and alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’ the main course, and “Stompology,” featuring some terrific Lawrence Brown trombone, are prime examples.
Hamp takes a turn at the piano for the blazing, two-fingered “Chinatown” he renamed “China Stomp.” Jazz legends trumpeter Harry James and alto saxophonist Benny Carter join the vibist for a wild ride on Jelly Roll’s “Shoe Shiner’s Drag” while Dizzy Gillespie joins the cast for a lovely version of “When The Lights Are Low,” a Carter composition.
“Ring Dem Bells” is notable, not only for Hamp’s joyful vocal and scatting, but also for the contributions of Cootie Williams’ muted trumpet and Hodges’ supple sax.
Although clarinets generally take over “Memories Of You,” here it’s a feature for Lawrence Brown. “I’ve Found A New Baby” is another Hampton piano feature even though he’s credited with playing vibes only, and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” finds Hamp at the microphone and Jonah Jones taking a brief trumpet solo.
Fittingly, Hamp closes up shop with a somewhat subdued “Flying Home,” his signature song.
In sum, let’s hear it for Hamp!
The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes
Some jazz musicians blow notes through their horns, period. However, alto sax virtuoso Charlie Parker’s music was an expression of his life: the blues, which he knew better than nearly anyone; the ragged rhythms and melodic distortions that personified the highs and lows of a life on drugs; embracing ballads, reflective of his tender side; and an eagerness to explore the unknown and play on the edge, a mirror image of how he lived.
His chaotic lifestyle aside, Parker was to bop what fellow alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was to mainstream jazz: unique. Parker ventured where no other alto player had ever been, and along with Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, was in the vanguard of those credited with creating bop as a jazz form.
Not that Parker’s performances were always perfect, even though he may have thought they were. He believed he played his best when he was high. That wasn’t always true. At times drugs worked against him, rather than generating superior performances.
And it was against this background that Parker recorded for both Dial and Savoy labels simultaneously, from 1944 through 1948. And from those master takes come a three-disc compilation – 65 selections in all – that have been boxed and reissued by Savoy as part of the label’s 60th anniversary observation.
Most are bop standards. The Savoy entries include many of Bird’s better known compositions: “Now’s The Time,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Donna Lee,” “Little Willie Leaps,” “Steeplechase” and “Koko.” The last tune shouldn’t be confused with Ellington’s “Koko,” which is definitely a bird of another feather.
From the Dial sessions, there’s Parker’s masterpiece, “Yardbird Suite;” Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night In Tunisia;” the engaging “Scrapple From the Apple;” several ballads, including “Embraceable You” and “Out Of Nowhere,” as well as “Loverman,” recorded in 1946 at the time Bird was going through a mental breakdown.
Not only did Parker compose much of the music, he also is listed as bandleader on 56 tracks.
Notable exceptions are the first four cuts when he performs with guitarist Tiny Grimes’ Quintette, the same number of songs he plays with the Miles Davis All Stars.
Plainly, Parker traveled in fast company. And his choice of musicians on the discs under consideration are proof. Davis is in Bird’s bands frequently, as are drummer Max Roach, pianists Duke Jordan and Bud Powell, and bassist Tommy Potter. Others making occasional appearances include trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Erroll Garner, and tenorman Lucky Thompson.
How do you measure the value of a collection such as this? It certainly is needed, in that it is the first time the Savoy and Dial takes have been combined in a complete and orderly manner.
And Stanley Crouch’s narrative in the booklet that accompanies the set throws more light on Parker’s professional career and personal foibles.
And for those with an ear for bop and the wholly unique spin Parker put on his music, this is a valuable addition to a jazz library. Moreover, the collection raises once more the question – not of Parker’s place in jazz, because that is assured – but what more would he have brought to jazz had he not died in 1955 at the age of 34, a victim of his own excesses?
Cam Miller is a freelance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945
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