More than 50 years after the bebop revolution, no one has been able to play the saxophone with the agility, command and sheer aplomb of Charlie Parker. John Coltrane, probably the second most revered sax slinger of the post-bop era, played with a raging intensity built from hard-won dedication and, later in his career, wanton sonic exploration. Charlie Parker, on the other hand, made it sound easy. His swing, swagger and speed on alto remain an ongoing marvel.
Washington Concerts combines eight tracks originally issued on Elektra/Musician in the early '80s with newfound material. The first eight capture Bird guesting in February 1953 with the workmanlike Joe Timer Orchestra, a local D.C. unit. Uncertain that the drug-addled saxophonist would show up, organizers never advertised his appearance. The audience got a thrilling surprise when the genius turned up, plastic (yes plastic) horn in tow, and proceeded to blow up, around and through the 14-piece ensemble's arrangements — using just his ears and gargantuan talent, sans sheet music.
Bird's solos are pushed way up in the mix, with the big band's simpatico backing muted. The program includes standards like "These Foolish Things," "Thou Swell" and "Roundhouse," as well as a couple of more obscure songs that it's unlikely Parker knew. Most of this material falls in the midtempo range, with a couple of ballads thrown in. The sound quality is first-rate relative to the concert's somewhat ad hoc circumstances.
The same cannot be said for the small-group performances from '52 and '53 that follow. The drums come off as a series of dull thuds, the bass is little more than a drone, the piano tinny. Parker's sax is thin as well, but the fluidity of his playing comes through in spades. The substandard sound quality is compensated for, though; these performances burn, seethe with the abandon of undiluted bebop, capturing a bit of what it was like to have been in such a hot-wired environment. The jewel of these selections is "Anthropology," whose tempo is beyond the pale (I could barely tap my finger to it).
In 2001, any unearthed Bird is welcome Bird, even if it sounds like it's emanating from a transistor radio. (Blue Note)
Dumb name, great record. While most of the posthardcore acts out there take some degree of inspiration from genres outside the punk realm (most notably power-pop), Thursday takes things a step further, incorporating a variety of wildly disparate influences to startling, compelling effect. Traces of moody Brit-wave pioneers such as The Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen crop up all over Full Collapse, tempering the band's heaviness with swirling, clean guitar passages and heart-adhesive emotional hooks. The all-important crunch is omnipresent as well, and therein lies the secret of the group's success — where the overwhelming majority of emo outfits strive to find the middle ground, Thursday careens from edge to edge, mixing the heaviest with the most iconoclastic in a fresh and dynamic manner. The two-vocalist lineup suits this style perfectly, splitting the difference between whimper and roar, and occasionally smashing the two together in a climactic gut-wrenching pileup. This is not background music. (Victory Records, www.victoryrecords.com)
Symptons of a Leveling Spirit
The latest full-length from SoCal melodicore pioneers Good Riddance is something of a disappointment, offering little more than a pedestrian blast of familiar riffage that borders on the generic. Their last couple of releases displayed hints of something different to come, but for Symptoms, the band apparently opted to go with what they know, which, unfortunately, comes off as lacking. Tracks like "Enter the Unapproachables," "Great Look Forward" and "Year of the Rat" certainly provide enough adrenaline. Overall, however, it's painfully obvious that GR have reached a plateau, in the sense that the style they started with has taken them about as far as they're going to get on the strength of that limited palette. (Fat Wreck Chords, www.fatwreck.com)
It appears a stable family life and his humbling four-album bout with Warner Bros. has left Grant-Lee Phillips a little less eager to turn the world on its ear with his rather high-minded spin on rehabbed classic-rock revisionism. Mobilize, the first label-backed release from the former leader of '90s Left Coast misfits Grant Lee Buffalo, forgoes the artist's tendency to amplify his strummed folk-rock melodies and artfully cryptic world-in-a-nutshell reflection into arena-size Technicolor exposures. Playing all the instruments himself and co-producing this time out, Phillips defers to a drum machine for the album's uneven rhythmic pulse. And if you can get past the largely synthetic, rinky-dink feel of the programmed beats, you'll settle into some of his most cozy work to date. From the scaled-down Buffalo-esque sweep of "See America" — a road song with a groggy, sleep-deprived disposition — to the luscious synth washes and indelible chorus of "We All Get a Taste" ("No we can't take that away 'cause the gods make sure we all get a taste") to the eerie weightlessness of album-closer "April Chimes," Phillips sounds like he's back to writing for himself rather than the critics. Mobilize may not be the return to the "me and my guitar" format implied by Phillips' recent string of solo mini-tours, but it is a solitary portrait in the truest sense — one whose reach exceeds its limitations. (Zo/Rounder)
End of Amnesia
Matt Ward of the band Rodriguez has created a second collection of creaky, acoustic country-folk. Based in Portland, Ore. (by way of Seattle, Chicago and California), Ward has a keen sense of melody and some seriously tasteful lyrical acumen; the disc has plenty of dusty, drowsy moments to be reckoned with, especially for fans of Smog, Calexico and Will Oldham, moments that become more apparent with each listen. Ward also shows some formidable guitar skills along with an appreciation for Southern California high lonesome on "Color of Water." There's such a watery softness to the production — and Ward's vocal delivery — that even the old-school, barrelhouse rocker "Flaming Heart" gets its greasy exterior dusted with talc. Other high points include the lovelorn ballad "Carolina," which boasts tiny touches of Tom Waits weirdness and succinct, lovely lyrics ("Better watch your soul/ It'll leave you like a hundred bucks /My friends said stick to your guns/ But instead I just got stuck"), and the album's closer, the glorious, nostalgic folktale "O'Brien/O'Brien's Nocturne." (Future Farmer, www.futurefarmer.com)