Jazz Institute of Chicago

The complete Dean Benedetti recordings of Charlie Parker

The complete Dean Benedetti
recordings of Charlie Parker

reviewed by Don Rose

MOSAIC RECORDS
35 Melrose Place, Stamford Connecticut 06902
Mail order only.
7 CD Box, $112, 10 LP box $100
with 48-page booklet.

The wrongfully maligned saxophonist Dean Benedetti is a true jazz hero for his remarkable contribution to the Charlie Parker discography. In 1991 Mosaic issued this seven-disc (10 LP) box set comprising virtually all of the music recorded by Benedetti during a two-week stint by Parker in March, 1947 at a Los Angeles club called the Hi-De-Ho; then one night in March, 1948 at the Three Deuces in New York and a week in July of that year at the Onyx Club, both on the legendary 52nd Street. For various reasons—mainly economic—most of the pieces display only Parker's alto work. There are few ensemble heads or other band members' solos. Thus there are 270 Parker items comprising 461 solos or fragments—one a mere three seconds long.

The overwhelming bulk of Bird's studio work (master and alternate takes, fragments and breakdowns) can be heard on three CDs from Savoy, four from Stash (originally issued on Dial) and 10 from Verve (collecting all his work from the various labels owned or supervised by Norman Granz, such as Disc, Mercury, Norgran etc.). Then there is a comprehensive collection of airchecks from the Royal Roost nightclub occupying three of a recently reissued four-disc box of live performances from Savoy. The Benedetti collection therefore represents the largest available single body of recorded Parker solos—more than all the studio sets combined.

The material comes from Bird's most creative and productive years. It affords us a chance to hear him inventing on the spot, hour by hour, day by day in several cases. We hear him hit many peaks in the process—and we hear him at a few unfocused, out-of-sorts lows. (Yes, even Bird had an occasional day like that.) It's an unusual document, fractured as it may be, of the way this musical giant spent large chunks of his life: working in odd little clubs, one day after another.

We hear him rework in his unique, masterly way as many as 16 popular songs that don't appear on any other studio or live set issued to date (e.g., "Prisoner of Love," "I Surrender Dear"). We also get to hear him do certain tunes, such as "Wee" (aka "Allen's Alley," aka "Big Noise") again and again, more than a half dozen times—the next set, the next date, and so forth—giving a dramatic insight into his unending creativity.

We not only hear many of the familiar tunes from the early bebop repertory ("Groovin' High," "Hot House") and his own classic compositions ("Yardbird Suite," "Ornithology," "Moose the Mooch"), but, surprisingly, many from the book associated with Coleman Hawkins ("Rifftide," "Spotlite,""Bean Soup"). We also hear the development of his infinite repertory of licks and quotes ranging from the lightly sardonic "In a Country Garden" to Exercise 23 of H. E. Klose's "25 Daily Exercises for Saxophone."

The big problem—once you get past the issue of hearing one isolated solo after another—is the sound quality. Benedetti and his sidekick Jimmy Knepper—the great trombonist who played in Dean's band—used a home-quality, 78 rpm, portable disk-cutter with a single microphone in Angeles. The metal- based, acetate disks were poor to mediocre quality and he was anything but a professional sound engineer. Though he improved quickly, the frequency range did not.

In New York he used an early monophonic (of course) tape recorder with paper-based tape. While he had Parker's permission to record—and usually tried to place the mike in front of him—the club owners didn't want the recordists to interfere with the audience, so they often were shunted aside.

In one case they had to work in a crawl-space beneath the bandstand and drill a hole in the bandstand floor to place the mike. There is thus nothing resembling balance, plus lots of surface noise and other problems inherent to home disk recording equipment. Add to this a lot of audience noise and the fact that some of the Benedetti material was actually dubbed and overdubbed from earlier efforts, and the wonder is that much of the sound actually reaches an acceptable level.

The Hi-De-Ho date came soon after Bird's release from a six-month stay at Camarillo, a state mental hospital. The band comprised trumpeter Howard McGee, Hamp Hawes on piano, Addison Farmer on bass and Roy Porter on drums. (Less than two weeks earlier he made the Dial session with McGee, Wardell Gray and Barney Kessel and others that included "Cheers," "Carvin' the Bird," "Stupendous" and "Relaxin' at Camarillo.") The best night was probably March 2, with exceptional solos on "Yardbird Suite" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," but Bird cooks throughout the stay—more than four hours of music here.

Shortly after the gig, Bird ended his 16-month sojourn in California and returned to New York to record the "Donna Lee" date for Savoy. The band included Miles Davis, Max Roach on drums, Tommy Potter on bass and Bud Powell on piano. Duke Jordan would replace Bud Powell for what we now call Bird's classic quintet—the band that recorded so many masterpieces. Benedetti captured it at the Three Deuces and the Onyx. He now often gets complete performances of theme and all solos on tape.

March 31 at the Deuces is a superb night—among the best of the band's club dates, with a gorgeous rendition of "All the Things You Are" and blazing performances of "Half Nelson" (Miles' composition based on Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird") and "Big Foot" (aka "Drifting on a Reed," "Air Conditioning"). Much of this session was once issued on the Spotlite LP called "The Band that Never Was," though the Mosaic engineers really improved the sound quality—as they worked their auditory magic on all of this material.

The Onyx club dates, including an apparent rehearsal session, are probably the weakest in the entire box—especially those in early July, which have been issued by several labels as "Bird on 52nd Street" (now available as an "Original Jazz Classic"). The sound is poorest because this is where they recorded through a hole in the bandstand floor, just under Roach's drum set—however Roach was brilliant throughout all the New York dates. On the other hand, even weak Bird is plenty strong.

Several vocalists sat in with the band during this run, including Carmen McRae, Kenny "Pancho" Hagood and Earl Coleman. The really special addition to the band, however, takes place on July 11, when Thelonius Monk comes up to the stand to replace Jordan for one number and teaches everyone the changes to his "Well You Needn't." It is one of the rare times Monk and Bird recorded together. It also was the last night Benedetti recorded Bird. Benedetti migrated to Italy, his ancestral homeland, where he died in 1957 at age 34—the same age Parker was when he died in 1955.

The saga of the long "lost" Benedetti recordings—which also include several songs played by Benedetti himself, some solo, others played along with Bird recordings—is quite a tale in itself. The box's 48-page booklet by Jim Patrick, Phil Schaap and Bob Porter spins it all out, along with a biography of Benedetti, a Parker time-line and some of the most amazing musical detective work you can imagine. Assembling the material, identifying it and cleaning it up the sound as much as possible was a superhuman effort. Patrick's contribution is an impressive analysis, with musical examples, of Parker's repertory, his pet licks and their origins. There are some interesting photos as well.

The booklet's one flaw is the confusing organization of the musical material, where many pieces were taken out of chronological order for "listenability" purposes—and the bizarre ordering system into 64 "sections" with letters to identify the subsections while the discs themselves use numerals instead of letters. Go figure that one out. Well, if even Bird wasn't perfect, why should Mosaic be?

The Charlie Parker photo above, included in the Mosaic box set, is from the Frank Driggs Collection. Click here to read Keith Henson on Dean Benedetti.

Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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