Clark Gibson

"As he does throughout this entire recording, Gibson delivers a sense of surprise, agility, buoyancy, and lyricism. He deftly handles the shifting streams of musical style and meaning in a way that recalls Parker’s most classic performances with strings. It’s this rich mix of sounds and ideas that makes the music sound vital, then as now."

The Clark Gibson Studio Orchestra presents a disc full of arrangements commissioned by Charlie Parker in 1950. For a variety of reasons, many of these arrangements were never performed and it is believed that many were never even rehearsed.

The story of Clark Gibson’s new recording Bird with Strings: The Lost Arrangements begins not with the legendary recordings of Charlie Parker with strings of late 1949 to early 1952, but with The Jazz Scene, an almost forgotten collection of sides produced by Norman Granz in 1949.

In the forties Norman Granz emerged as a leading jazz promoter and producer. His Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series and the short subject film Jammin’ the Blues (1944) introduced wide audiences to the jazz world aurally and visually, exposing viewers to the drama of cutting contests and displays of racial integration, and ultimately cemented an idealistic, romantic view of modern jazz musicians. By bringing together swing players and the new beboppers, Granz aspired to produce and promote commercially viable music of high artistic merit.

In 1947, at twenty-nine years of age and already a jazz impresario with clout from New York to Los Angeles, Granz set out to document a representation of the jazz world in sound, words, and images. The result was The Jazz Scene (1949), a limited-edition folio on the Mercury label comprised of six 12-inch 78 rpm discs, replete with compelling photography by Gjon Mili and elaborate packaging. The price for one of the 5,000 signed and numbered copies was twenty-five dollars, roughly $250 today.

In the liner notes, Granz writes that each artist was afforded the opportunity to “give the distillate of what they represented to themselves,” and to “take as long as he wished in recording.” The results of this total freedom are revealing. Coleman Hawkins supposedly took eight hours before he was satisfied with “Picasso,” a brilliant and rare unaccompanied solo work built on “Prisoner of Love” that still sounds as fresh as the day it was played. Duke Ellington and Ralph Burns recorded intimate and elegant chamber works, and classically trained string section players appear on five of the twelve works.

As a representation of his role in modern jazz, Charlie Parker contributed “The Bird.” He was initially slated to record duets with Art Tatum, but Tatum didn’t make the date, and on short notice Granz assembled a stellar backing of Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne. This contrafact of “Topsy” is Parker’s longest studio-recorded solo performance, totaling just under five minutes.

Beyond this gem, other novel elements of Granz’s collection include the first recording of Parker with a string ensemble. After recording “The Bird” in one room at Carnegie Hall, Parker unexpectedly dropped by Neal Hefti’s session in the main auditorium and sat in with his twenty-five-piece jazz orchestra. The result is “Repetition.” Hefti had written the music only a few days earlier, at Granz’s request, with no particular soloist in mind, and was easily able to work Parker in. How serendipitous that Bird spontaneously delivered to The Jazz Scene something so progressive and unexpected.

In fact, Parker had wished to record with strings as early as 1941. His interest was sparked more by the new music coming out of Europe—from composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky, and Hindemith—than by popular Hollywood-style orchestral accompaniment. Parker was a path breaker in his work with strings, though he never realized his conception of a collaboration of equals with a master modern classical composer. The functional arrangements of Joe Lipman, Jimmy Carroll, Gil Evans, and others allowed Parker to essay popular standards as a soloist and improvise to an extent, but without a great deal of creative interaction. It has often been lamented that, as brilliant as Parker sounds in studio and live recordings with strings, true interactive development and real integration with string forces had to wait for musicians of the future.

Alto saxophonist Clark Gibson has focused a great deal of energy on Charlie Parker’s work with string ensembles during this 1949–52 period. He has transcribed and analyzed Parker’s playing with strings, researched and written about its history, and most importantly, performed this music in concert himself. The achievement of the present recording is that Gibson does not merely re-record what Parker did with the same repertoire, but improvises in the same spirit on material that Parker never recorded in the studio. In fact, Parker did record four of the present selections: “Repetition” on The Jazz Scene and live at the Apollo Theater, Carnegie Hall, Birdland, and Rockland Palace; “Rocker” live at Carnegie Hall, Birdland, and Rockland Palace; and “Stardust” and “Gold Rush” at Rockland Palace. Gibson’s inclusion of the latter two pieces is especially welcome because the live Parker recordings are often of poor audio quality. The inclusion of “Repetition” is natural for opposite reasons: Parker recorded it more than any other work with strings, and it was truly the piece that set the trend in motion.

On standards such as “Stardust” and “I Cover the Waterfront,” purists will appreciate the way Gibson states the melody with little or no digression. His take on the melody of “Repetition” is less brusque and also more regular than Parker’s. And while Gibson’s playing is generally rooted in bebop, his improvisational language does nod to Parker more explicitly at times. For example, after the strings quote Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with a phrase Hefti lifted from “The Augurs of Spring,” there is a space for improvisation where Parker himself would toss the quote back or play something slightly wry. Gibson, in the same space, cleverly uses hemiola and repetition of small groups of notes to achieve a similar acknowledgement of the strings. The piece develops with trading between Gibson and Chip McNeill on tenor saxophone, which drives this romp to the end.

Other highlights include the swinging JATP-esque train of soloist and trading on “Yardbird Suite,” the only Parker original included here. Gibson suggested some updates in the rhythm section accompaniment that give a nice lift to several pieces: “When I Dream of You” features a Ray Charles gospel groove that prompts Gibson to dip into a bluesier bag, and “You Go to My Head” is played here as a Brazilian bossa nova

Several jazz composers and contemporaries of Parker were commissioned by Granz to round out the popular song material. John Lewis and Gerry Mulligan each contributed a lively and swinging original, “Scootin’” and “Gold Rush” respectively. The latter appears on the recently discovered bootleg Rockland Palace Concert, and the former is unrecorded. Of note on “Gold Rush” is Gibson’s fluidity at this fast tempo and Chip Stephens’s finger-popping linear phrasing.

Akin to these energetic bebop selections, George Russell’s arrangement of his own “Ezz-thetic” is wonderful to hear recorded here. Built on the chords of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” the adventurous and challenging melodic line has been recorded by Lee Konitz, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, and Max Roach, making it a kind of avant-garde bebop standard. The challenging nature of this dissonant music may have prevented it from being selected for recording by either Granz or Parker. It is unknown whether Parker ever performed this arrangement, but it’s possible he did at Birdland in late 1951 or ’52. Gibson and Stephens handle the melody adeptly, and stretch out in the solo section in an outgoing and appropriately post-bop modal manner.

“They Didn’t Believe Me” is a 1914 Jerome Kern tune from the Broadway musical The Girl from Utah, and one of the earliest pieces in the Great American Songbook repertoire. The Herbert Reynolds lyric, with its easygoing simplicity that refrains from grandiloquent expressions of romantic love, made it a hit in its day. Gibson’s reading of Jimmy Carroll’s arrangement was recorded live in recital at the University of Illinois School of Music, and truly captures the magic of a fine jazz soloist performing live with a string ensemble. As he does throughout this entire recording, Gibson delivers a sense of surprise, agility, buoyancy, and lyricism. He deftly handles the shifting streams of musical style and meaning in a way that recalls Parker’s most classic performances with strings. It’s this rich mix of sounds and ideas that makes the music sound vital, then as now.