Charlie Parker, the matchless alto saxophonist and bebop exemplar, had few better days in a recording studio than March 28, 1946. He was in Hollywood, leading his first session under an exclusive contract with Dial Records. His handpicked sidemen included the well-seasoned tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson and a young trumpeter named Miles Davis, and by the end of the date they had recorded several of Parker’s most canonical tracks, including “A Night in Tunisia” and “Yardbird Suite.”
I doubt whether I knew any of this context when I first heard the music, dubbed onto cassette by a teacher when I was a high school sophomore. (Knowing he was a Bird fanatic, I had requested some of his favorite stuff, pestering him for weeks.) That 1946 Dial session, a portion of which appeared on Side B of the cassette, knocked me out right away: Parker was just so unerringly brilliant, and the arrangements so crisp and relaxed. There was only one problem, as I saw it, and that was Thompson.
A veteran of swing-era big bands led by Lionel Hampton and Count Basie, Thompson was just four years older than Parker. But his sound — muscular and breathy, with a broad vibrato — harked back to a previous generation, the one that (to my mind, at the time) Parker had vanquished to certain obsolescence. One particular track, “Ornithology,” seemed to crystallize my point: Parker and Davis each fashion a brisk, boppish 32-bar chorus, after which Thompson’s solo arrives as if out of a fog. I thought his solo sounded outmoded and discombobulated. Every time I heard it, I felt sorry for the guy.
A track including a tenor saxophone solo by Lucky Thompson. Mosaic Records
Thompson, who died almost exactly a decade ago, never achieved mainstream success in jazz. But he was a far better and more compelling musician than my youthful ear led me to assume. Years later, having devoured a lot more jazz (and jazz history), I grew to consider him a maverick, dauntless in the face of bebop’s disruptions and true at every turn to his own idiosyncratic style.
Late last year, when Mosaic Records issued “The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions,” a nine-CD boxed set, I re-encountered that master take of “Ornithology” for the first time in a while. Every note rang familiar, but Thompson’s solo struck me as a revelation: 35 seconds of brave and gallant intrigue, a pocket marvel of insinuative harmony and spry syncopation.
It seems to hover outside of time, harboring some kind of secret, even as it adheres to popular song form. By my current estimation, it’s easily the most interesting thing about the track — though I guess that could change again in another two dozen years.
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James Gavin, journalist and author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker