Craft Recordings celebrates the enduring influence of Charlie Parker with ‘Ornithology: The Best of Bird’

Article Contributed by Craft Recordings | Published on Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Craft Recordings is pleased to announce Ornithology: The Best of Bird, a brand-new Charlie “Bird” Parker collection that introduces the legendary saxophonist through 11 classic tracks. Spanning 1945–1953, the album compiles material from the influential jazz artist’s most prolific era, including such prime cuts as “Ko-Ko,” “Billie’s Bounce” and “Groovin’ High.” Arriving August 23 and available for pre-order today, Ornithology will be available on 1-LP, 1-CD and digital formats, while fans can find the album in two limited-edition pressings, including Canary Yellow vinyl (exclusively via Spotify Fans First) and Ruby (Barnes & Noble). All physical editions also include a new essay by Ashley Kahn, GRAMMY® Award-winning writer and author.

Though his life and career were all too brief, Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920–1955) endures as one of music’s most revolutionary figures. A founding father of bebop (or “bop,” for short) and among the greatest saxophonists of all time, Parker was an innovative composer and improviser whose highly influential work paved the way for hard bop, free jazz, fusion and beyond.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Parker first picked up the alto saxophone as a child. At 14, he dropped out of school to pursue a professional career, and in 1939, “Yardbird,” or “Bird,” as he was lovingly called, relocated to New York City. It was there that he began a deep exploration of melody, rhythm and phrasing, as he developed the earliest sounds of bop.

Bop marked a significant shift from the predominant, predictable sounds of the Swing Era big bands, which stuck to measured chord changes and ballroom-friendly rhythms. Instead, this was music that could be performed by small combos, allowing players the intimacy and freedom to dance around melodies through complex chords—often at a breakneck pace. It was groundbreaking, rebellious and unlike anything anyone had heard before.

Bird, Ashley Kahn writes, developed “a propensity for slaloming through changes with uncanny harmonic precision. His phrasing was filled with surprise and restless energy, marked by bursts of offbeat accents. Rather than fitting his statements neatly into the bar lines of the song structure, he began skating across them, drawing more attention to his own improvised statements, pushing further and further from familiar melodies and themes. “

While the early ’40s were overshadowed by a nationwide recording ban (led by the American Federation of Musicians due to a disagreement over royalty payments) , Bird and his compatriots used this time to develop bop during late-night jam sessions and after-hour shows. Often, they re-imagined their favorite standards, working within the harmonic structure of the original tune, but replacing their themes with faster-paced melodies. As Kahn explains, “These new creations came to be called ‘contrafacts,’ a classical music term borrowed to describe one of the ways of inventing original repertoire for this new mode of improvisation.”

In 1945, a year after the ban was lifted, this exciting new sound began to emerge on record. One of the most famous sessions from this time was led by Bird for Savoy Records and featured bop’s other foundational figures, including trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, drummer Max Roach and bassist Curley Russell. Famously touted as “The Greatest Jazz Session Ever,” subsequent releases from the November 1945 session included the Parker originals “Billie’s Bounce,” “Now’s the Time” and “Ko-Ko,” which Kahn writes is “the tune most often credited as the true birth-cry of bebop.” Other highlights from the Savoy era include “Donna Lee,” “Parker’s Mood” and “Cheryl,” all of which are collected in Ornithology.

In order to paint a full picture of Bird’s genius, the compilation also features several of his live performances. These concerts, Kahn argues, “Further cemented his reputation as the standard-bearer of this new wave.” Multiple selections were recorded at New York’s Royal Roost club between December 1948 and May 1949 with an array of legendary players, including Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Max Roach (drums), Charles Mingus (bass), Milt Jackson (vibraphone) and Bud Powell (piano). Also featured is a fiery 1947 performance of “Confirmation” at Carnegie Hall, as well as a historic, all-star performance of “Salt Peanuts,” captured at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1953, with Gillespie, Powell, Mingus and Roach.

“Among the most significant of [Bird’s] innovations,” Kahn writes, “was perhaps figuring out how to be truly individual and move the music forward without forfeiting the beauty of what came before. The trouble was that he accomplished it so well and so damn fast, there was little time to leave behind the breadcrumbs.” Indeed, Parker blazed a path that would change the course of modern music—reverberating long after his premature death at 34. Today, his pioneering spirit can be traced through generations of artists who followed in his footsteps.

These recordings, meanwhile, are just as vital as they were nearly eight decades ago. “This is music that demands our continued attention and focus,” argues Kahn. “The challenge today is to figure out how to make our contemporary ears know how intense and challenging Bird’s music was in its day. How to feel how scary it once was. How it bent the ears of an entire generation in the 1940s, then held on, not letting go—and how the world changed.”

Click here to pre-order Ornithology: The Best of Bird

Track Listing (Vinyl):

Side A

1.  Ko-Ko

2.  Now's The Time

3.  Cheryl

4.  Parker’s Mood

5.  Billie’s Bounce

6.  Donna Lee

7.  Confirmation (Live at Carnegie Hall)

Side B

1.  Ornithology (Live at the Royal Roost)

2.  Groovin’ High (Live at the Royal Roost)

3.  Anthropology (Live at the Royal Roost)

4.  Salt Peanuts (Live at Massey Hall)

Track Listing (CD/Digital):

1.      Ko-Ko

2.      Now’s The Time

3.      Cheryl

4.      Parker’s Mood

5.      Billie’s Bounce

6.      Donna Lee

7.      Confirmation (Live at Carnegie Hall)

8.      Ornithology (Live at the Royal Roost)

9.      Groovin’ High (Live at the Royal Roost)

10.  Anthropology (Live at the Royal Roost)

11.  Salt Peanuts (Live at Massey Hall)