CHARLIE PARKER WITH STRINGS: ALBUM REVIEW
Charlie Parker celebrated his centennial last week. As one of the most influential figures in jazz, his legacy was celebrated all over the country. It’s impossible to overstate Parker’s influence on all of American music. No one album can sum up his genius, but Charlie Parker with Strings is perhaps the album that best showcases his innovative nature. It's also a controversial album, equally loved and hated. Although it was his most popular album during his lifetime, some see it as a shameless cash grab, while others recognize it for the forward-thinking odyssey that it is. Charlie Parker with Strings is the perfect album for relaxing, for thinking, or for studying the genius of the great Charlie Parker.
Charlie Parker with Strings often refers to a set of two Parker albums released in 1949 and 1950, totaling 18 songs. The first album kicks off with the song, “Just Friends,” which introduces the sound of the album perfectly. Within the first few seconds of the track, you hear a harp, violins, and violas as Parker sits back and waits for the perfect break to come in. The first notes of Parker’s solo feel like bliss as his alto saxophone glides over the string backing.
The entire project proceeds much in the same fashion, with Parker soloing over a backdrop of strings and light percussion. At first, it can seem quite safe; Parker’s solos seem almost sanitized and riskless, but it’s important to consider the historical context behind this release. Up until Charlie Parker with Strings, string orchestras and jazz bands existed in different worlds. The pop standards were performed by orchestras and jazz bands stuck to jazz standards. Charlie Parker with Strings merges a traditional jazz quartet with a partial string orchestra, a novel, and successful concept.
Where the album thrives is in the emotional vulnerability that the string section allows Parker to show. The inclusion of a string section slows the tempo of the project down and allows every single note to be enunciated. A great example appears on “April in Paris” where parker alternates solos with the pianist Hank Jones to create a lounge-like atmosphere. Toward the end of the track, Parker breaks form and explodes for a solo filled with trills and arpeggios. The entire band rises and falls with each note Parker plays, which creates a magical shimmering feeling. The entire song helps you appreciate the powerful nature of the project as a whole: even though technically, Parker is not pushing any boundaries, sonically, he creates a world of peace.
Charlie Parker with Strings probably will not change your view of jazz or present anything that pushes the boundaries of what you know as music, but it does act as a case-study in innovation. Charlie Parker was an incredible innovator and constantly worked to push all of American music forward. This album is a great introduction to Charlie Parker’s influence, although it doesn’t showcase much of his technical chops, Charlie Parker with Strings shows his unique ability to singlehandedly shape a genre.