Leo Parker: Leo Parker: Rollin' With Leo – 1961

Marc Davis BY

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Rollin' With Leo is a fitting epitaph for a forgotten saxman.
What if I told you there's a saxman who was there at the birth of bebop—literally, he played on the very first bebop recording—and you've never heard of him? And what if I told you his life story is the very archetype of the tragic, drug-addicted jazz musician?

Would you still want to hear his music?

Listen anyway. Rollin' With Leo by baritone saxman Leo Parker is an obscure pleasure. Lately, I've been listening to it a lot, during train rides to and from work. It feels like a warm, comfortable bath. The music washes over me and makes me feel happy and satisfied, despite the artist's tortured history.

Here's the back story: Leo Parker was essentially a swing master, with hints of R&B and bop. He played in big bands with folks like Billy Eckstine, Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie. He's got a fat, low, rumbling sound so typical of the baritone.

In February 1944, Parker—no relation to Charlie Parker—played in Hawkins' band on a record that is considered the very first bebop recording. The tune is Gillespie's "Woody 'n You," and Parker is one of nine horns. He's just a background guy and doesn't take a solo. Still, that record puts him in the realm of jazz royalty—kind of like the pianist and drummer behind Chuck Berry. A guy who was there at the birth, but not the essential ingredient.

For years after, Parker was the quintessential sideman, walking back and forth between jazz and R&B. And then, in 1961, Blue Note offered him the chance to lead his own band. He did it very well, for exactly two records. He seemed on the verge of a musical breakthrough. And then he died at age 36 after years of drug abuse. End of story.

Except for this: Blue Note never released those 1961 recordings. They sat in the vaults for nearly 20 years. In death, Leo Parker remained obscure. Finally, in 1980, Blue Note released Leo Parker's only two albums as a leader. And guess what? They're really good.

Rollin' With Leo is the better and bluesier record. To my ears, the centerpiece is a tune called "Talkin' the Blues" —a slow, draggy, romantic tune, full of smoke and darkness and swirling, rolling sadness. A lighter highlight: "Music Hall Beat"—a 5-minute piece of happy swing by Illinois Jacquet that could have been lifted intact from the Count Basie band.

Why did this excellent record molder unreleased for nearly 20 years? The liner notes don't say, but I can guess. Leo Parker was dead and Blue Note had no incentive to promote him. Also, by the early '60s, swing was long gone and hard bop was on its way out. Rollin' With Leo would have been a perfect record for the 1950s, especially with a living, breathing bandleader. In any event, it's a terrific album—and a fitting epitaph for a forgotten saxman.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Easy to find

Cost: $4 used, $11 new

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