In the fall of 1952, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, a cofounder of bebop, was already on the slope of physical decline that led to his death less than two years later. His performances were not always reliable, but he was still capable of superlative playing, as proved by this recording of a concert on September 26 at the Rockland Palace in Harlem. It was a benefit for Benjamin Davis, a Communist and city councilman whose conviction on political charges was a cause celebre of the day. There, in front of thousands of dancers, Parker played with his quintet (Walter Bishop, piano; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Teddy Kotick, bass; Max Roach, drums) and a string section, a project which was very important to him despite the blandness of most of the arrangements he had at his disposal. (We can only dream about how that might have changed had he lived.)
Tapes of this concert have long been in circulation among collectors and were even released, but their quality was unredeemable. The discovery of another set of tapes, much more professionally done and including more of the evening's music, made possible this reissue. Audiophiles must beware, but if they are also music-lovers they will overlook the sound, which is far removed from today's standards, and concentrate on the bright and shining music on the other side. (Doug Pomeroy must be applauded for his heroic work constructing this CD from the 44-year-old tapes.)
Once the ear gets used to the trebly atmosphere, the relative faintness of the back-up band and the wavering, ghostly background presence of the strings, Parker's dashing, charismatic alto soon focuses the mind. Unlike many of his live sessions with small groups, where his genius can be heard in spontaneous, risky flights often delivered with a kind of off-hand panache, here Parker must be careful not to clash with the strings behind him. Rather than box him in, this constraint seems to give him energy, as he concentrates on crafting vibrant statements that work with the written arrangements. He is exuberant, lyrical, swift, bursting out with ideas in a superb expression of what critic Gary Giddins called his "blues-based vision."
Walter Bishop was saddled with a substandard piano and we don't hear much of Mundell Lowe, but Max Roach's ringing cymbals shine through the sonic murk. His lightning reactions and terrific swing are the motor moving it all forward, and there is Bird at the front of the proceedings, playing at all times with sheer joy and thrilling aplomb. There is no point listing high points, since there are so many. Along with plentiful standards like "Stardust", "April in Paris," "Just Friends" or "Out of Nowhere," we are treated to two Gerry Mulligan tunes, "Rocker" and "Gold Rush," Neil Hefti's "Repetition," a calypso number called "Sly Mongoose," Parker originals "Ornithology" and "Cool Blues" and an athletic race through Lester Young's "Lester Leaps In" that has been transformed, thanks to the two separate recordings of the performance, into (ahem) "true stereo." "Live at Rockland Palace" is an indispensable example of Charlie Parker in full flight.