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Bird In LA: Record Store Day Vinyl Boxed Set Listening Report

Mark Smotroff finds good reason to dig back into Charlie Parker’s underground recordings…

Among certain music aficionados, there is something of a “who came first” perception as to which artists were the most bootlegged. Common discussion in pop circles center in on Bob Dylan as among the earliest while others argue The Beatles.  But those of us who are into Jazz and Opera know that there is a much older legacy dating back twenty years or more before those artists. 

Duke Ellington may have been one of the first to have one of his performances captured by amateur fans (who clearly knew what they were doing as the result is the now legendary and amazing sounding Fargo 1940 concert recording).

As for stealth recordings, however, Charlie Parker is arguably one of the first super stars prompting serious fans to sneak their portable recorders in to shows to capture his solos for posterity. Some of these recordings have become the stuff of legend, such as the Dean Benedetti recordings.  Over the years there have been seemingly endless waves of Bird recordings, many of dubious quality and questionable sourcing. Some are quite good but many are borderline unlistenable. 

The new four LP boxed set on Verve Records — simply titled Bird In LA, issued on Record Store Day / Black Friday this year— is a fascinating archival collection which connects many dots from the artist’s underground catalog (if you will). Here, the label has not only unearthed new rare recordings by Bird during his time in Los Angeles but also cleans up certain rarities to the point where some sound very enjoyable to even the non-hardcore Bird fanatic.  

When you open up Bird In LA, the first thing you should really do is play Disc 3 which contains the so called “naked party” recordings from a private party in Altadena, California. They are quite remarkable. Captured in 1952 during a very exclusive party, these recordings apparently have circulated for years among fans in somewhat muddied form. Engineer Doug Benson has done a wonderful job restoring them to the point where they sound quite good (well, as good as a mono audience recording made during a wild private party can sound!!!). 

Ultimately the performances are key and Bird is playing well, loose and fiery, which was apparently unusual for this period as he was already in serious decline due to his addictions. But for this night, outside of the confines and pressures of a club, he and his bandmates were just laying back and blowing madly. 

Oh… and, heh heh… you’ll have to read the enclosed booklet to find out why it was called the “naked party.” When you get to “Embraceable You” you’ll hear the audio-verite soundtrack as the scene unfolds; the tales from the evening recounted in the liner notes predates the let-it-all-hang-out hippy generation by about 15 years!

Actually, a paragraph from the official press release for Bird In LA  paints a pretty good portrait of what went on (note: the liner notes are a bit more explicit and detailed!).

“The second half of this riveting musical time capsule captures two performances from Jirayr Zorthian’s ranch in Altadena: the now infamous July 14, 1952 party where it’s alleged Parker, his bandmates and most of the audience stripped off their clothes at a rowdy late night gathering at Zorthian’s 27-acre hilltop ranch, located in the foothills above Pasadena, and a second performance two weeks later, with a young 22-year-old Chet Baker on trumpet, in one of his first recordings. Zorthian, an eccentric artist who passed away in 2004 at 92 following a life that included surviving the Armenian genocide as a child and graduating from Yale, loved to talk about that fateful fete. As he once personally regaled Burton, the party was held on a Monday when the musicians were not working and Bird who arrived characteristically late insisted on skinny dipping in the ranch swimming pool before playing. Several songs into the band’s performance, which included spirited version of “A Night In Tunisia” and “Ornithology,” Zorthian yells out “take it off” and Bird obliges, leading to many others to disrobe and making a wild party even wilder. The performance was recorded by the brother of Bird’s friend, the artist Julie McDonald, and it was sourced from Zorthian’s personal second-generation tape recording.”

Indeed, a side benefit of this set has been learning about party host Jirayr Zorthian who was something of a legend in Southern California artistic circles. There is too much to go into about him that is beyond the scope of this review but I have included a little mini documentary I found on YouTube at the end here which you should watch. 

After viewing it, try to imagine the scene in 1952 with Charlie Parker and his friends naked on stage swinging loose into the wee hours of the morning!  Thus it is not entirely surprising when I dug down into the liner notes to realize that the cover art on Bird In LA was created by Mr. Zorthian himself, a fitting tribute to that moment in time. 

One of the most interesting tracks for me on Bird In LA  is a snippet which is included for completeness from the end of the party recording.  This finds the band jamming on a very un-be-bop march step figure which the drummer was playing — with some noodling on “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie” themes before leading into a more swinging jam. While it is generally written off as inconsequential in the liner notes, I find it interesting as it falls so outside the flavors of the times. In its own way it kind of presents a teensy-tiny snapshot that — perhaps — musicians were thinking about what might come next after Be Bop.  In a way it kind of loosely pre-echos the sort of mash up of influences Charles Mingus would explore years later. 

If you have made it this far into my listening report, you probably get the idea that Bird In LA  is more than just another collection of random Charlier Parker live recordings. There are many other riches here to explore.  Taken together, this lovingly curated collection tells an important story about Bird’s visits to Southern California, the lifestyle he was living and how some of his more interesting (as well as some of his weakest) music was made.  

Whether you get Bird In LA on vinyl or CD, a worthwhile journey here awaits you…

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