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WORD FROM BIRD (Koch Jazz KOC CD-8542) [1957]

When I reviewed what was then available by Teddy Charles on CD elsewhere here, I mentioned that "Charles made two albums [in the Fifties] for Atlantic, the TENTET and WORD FROM BIRD, its followup. Half of the latter album is included on this CD, and the remainder is to be found on the Mingus PASSIONS OF A MAN boxed set." (That set is also reviewed elsewhere here.)

Koch Jazz has now released the original album on CD. The packaging is faithful to the original, using the LP’s cover and liner notes, and the CD sounds at least as good as the LP did.

The album was a followup to Charles’ TENTET album for Atlantic, but I found it disappointing when I originally listened to it in 1957. It’s more of a postscript to the TENTET album than a real successor, only the first half of the album making use of an augmented Tentet and the remainder a "blowing session" with an ad hoc quartet.

The reason for the album is the title track, "Word From Bird." The ten-minute piece was commissioned by the South German Radio Network (Suddeutsche Rundfunk) for the 1956 Stuttgart Light-Music Festival, although it was not performed there because the festival directors considered the piece "too heavy." I suspect they were looking for a piece of jazz fluff and were taken aback by Charles’ composition, which he subsequently referred to as his first fully realized "serious" composition. Personally, I thought his "The Emperor" on the TENTET album was its equal – and, interestingly enough, it too was based on the alto sax legend, Charlie Parker, who was better known as "Bird."

"Word From Bird" was not created as a memorial to Parker – Charles bristled at that description – but rather was based on Parker’s famous recording, "Parker’s Mood." Charles takes the slow blues intro and inverts it and develops it through variations into a sophisticated work. Charles is quoted in the liner notes: "I arrived at a point where after restating the opening thematic material – ‘swing style’ – the sole musical thought which offered itself, indeed impinged totally on my consciousness, was Bird’s opening statement on ‘Parker’s Mood.’ Call it inspiration, or what you will: this thought came unbidden and would not be denied. It was so insistent that I had to use it. This incident occurred almost exactly one year after Bird’s death."

Charles adds, "From then on, the piece wrote itself, since the profound emotional and musical qualities inherent in Bird’s phrase were enough meat for several pieces. It is true that the reprise has a requiem-like quality (as noted by John Wilson in his New York Times review), but that is one of the qualities of Bird’s phrase as well as the piece’s opening ideas (when combined and played ‘mesto’). The soloists, Art Farmer in particular, naturally got the feel of this piece in their blowing and contributed greatly to the composition."

The piece was recorded by a 12-piece group (virtually an "orchestra" by modern standards) – the Tentet plus trombone and French horn. One other track on the album also uses the Tentet (minus the two extra players): Bob Brookmeyer’s "Show Time." In his liner notes, Gary Kramer calls it "a happy, up-tempo wailer that is light as a feather and as spontaneous as it can be." I’d call it a piece of fluff – and probably what the Stuttgart Light-Music Festival was really looking for. It had been (rightly) bumped off the TENTET album, where it would have been totally a fish out of water.

The remainder of the album consists of what Kramer called a "lightly charted blowing session." (To be fair, he called it "a very interesting lightly charted blowing session," but….) Charles assembled a quartet for this session which consisted of himself on vibes, Hall Overton on piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums. All of these musicians had played together over the years in various combinations headed by Mingus or Charles, and were comfortable together. And they make comfortable music, absent any experimentalism or controversial approaches and not very much like the same musicians’ work together only a few years earlier (see my reviews of COLLABORATION WEST and EVOLUTION.) They cover three standards ("Laura," "When Your Lover Has Gone" and "Just One Of Those Things") and do a new blues, "Blue Greens." (The latter is the titular successor to "Green Blues" on the TENTET album, but while "Green Blues" is not a real blues in structure, "Blue Greens" is. Go figure.)

The end result is a curious hybrid of an album: what feel like leftovers from TENTET, plus a set of loose jams. That disappointed me in 1957, and it still does. Brookmeyer’s trivial "Show Time" is a major disappointment. Yet the album has undeniable high points: "Word From Bird" is as good as anything on TENTET, and even a relaxed Mingus is worth hearing, while his interplay with Charles (in the opening of "Laura," for example – an extended bass and vibes duet) is sublime.

When the TENTET album was issued on CD by Atlantic, both "Word From Bird" and "Show Time" were added as bonus tracks. And the four quartet tracks with Mingus were used in the Mingus box set from Atlantic, PASSIONS OF A MAN. So why bother with this CD? Well, the Atlantic CDs may be out of print by now; the TENTET album is difficult to find at best. And the Mingus boxed set slips these four tracks (the only ones not under Mingus’ leadership) in the back door. If you’re a fan of Teddy Charles, it’s nice to have the complete album on one disc.

Additionally, this mono album is now available, in the Koch CD, in the HDCD format. The High Definition Compatible Digital disc is mastered at 24 bits rather than the CD-standard of 16, and although playable on any CD player is supposed to reveal additional sonic subtleties on a (much more expensive) HDCD player. The claim also exists that HDCD discs sound better even on normal CD players. The golden-eared among you will find this an additional inducement to get this disc.

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