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Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (Mosaic, 1990)

Imagine this: someone going through an attic in Dublin comes upon a suitcase that obviously hasn't been opened in years. After unbuckling the lid, the person opens the case and discovers dozens of notebooks filled with distinctive and immediately recognizable prose fragments -outlines, character sketches and whole stories written in the hand of James Joyce-. Undoubtedly, such a discovery would be one of the great literary finds of the 20th century. Anyone who can understand the significance of such an event can appreciate that the discovery of Dean Benedetti's recordings of Charlie Parker means to jazz. Approximately eight hours long (and available on either ten LPs or seven CDs), this extraordinary and extremely specialized box set represents what has, for four decades, been jazz's Holy Grail. Charles "Yardbird" Parker is a jazz icon -a founding father of be-bop, a soloist of nearly unbelievable power and originality. Worshiped by many of his followers during his lifetime, Parker was transfigured into myth when he died on March 1955 at the age of 34. Bird Lives was the popular graffiti slug of the day, and the cult of personality that surrounded Parker -owing to his prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol as well as to his talent- has often overshadowed his art. One character in the Parker mythology was Dean Benedetti, a California saxophonist. Legend had it that after hearing Parker for the first time, Benedetti swore never to play the saxophone again and dedicated his life to following Parker and recording -with a wire recorder- every one of his performances. It was a romantic tale, and when Benedetti died in Italy i n1957, no one knew where the recordings were -or even in they really existed. Here are the facts. Benedetti was obsessed with Parker's playing, but he never abandoned his own career. And the recordings did existe, but Benedetti didn't use a wire recorder. When the archive turned up ten years ago in the attic of his brother's home in California, it proved to be split between discs and tapes. That didn't mean it was in good shape. Benedetti's equipment was hardly professional: his 78-rpm disc cutter was purchased from Sears and Roebuck, and his tapes were made on the first commercially available reel-to-reel machine, which used paper-backed tape. To conserve the expensive blank discs and spools of tape, Benedetti in almost all instances had only recorded Parker's solos. Finally, to make matters hopelessly confusing, there were copies of copies -discs transferred to tape, tapes transferred to disc, overdubs- a thousand little fragments stored together and largely unmarked. Putting those fragments back together would prove to be the ultimate jigzaw puzzle, one which none of the major record companies was willing to undertake. After all, these were only solos -and the sound quality ranged from pretty good to unlistenable. Mosaic -a label for jazz collectors- purchased the Benedetti collection two years ago. The task of assembling the hodgepodge and turning it into a listenable collection fell to Phil Schaap, a jazz historian and disc jockey who had previously worked on reissues of Parker's studio recordings for the Savoy and Verve labels. It required two years and some of the greatest detective work in the history of recorded music. Each disc segment and each snippet of tape was cataloged and compared, to weed out duplicates and assemble the mos complete "take" possible. The size of the task is difficult to comprehend. For each version of a song -and some, like "52nd Street Theme", were played almost every night that Benedetti documented -each recording had to be checked against the others to make sure it was, in fact, a different version. If duplicates existed, the best one had to be selected, and if there were different fragments of the same take, they had to be assembled from the fragile and sometimes seriously deteriorated originals. Schaap, coproducer Bob Porter and engineer Jack Towers deserve medals probably, and Grammys certainly. So what finally emerged? What legend has portrayed as a collection of every show Parker played after 1947 instead proves to be large chunks of three different groups of club dates. In Los Angeles in 1947, Benedetti recorded parts of perhaps as many as eleven nights at the Hi-De-Ho Club. Those shows featured Parker as part of trumpeter Howard McGhee's band, whit a rhythm section of drummer Roy Porter, bassist Addison Farmer and pianist Hampton Hawes. In New York, Benedetti recorded Parker in front of Parker's own classic quintet, with pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Miles Davis during stays at the Three Deuces and the Onyx in the first half of 1948. It could be argued that the Benedetti recordings are little more than the longest footnote in musical history. That would be wrong, largely because Parker's genius was an improvising soloist, and many of the solos recorded here are breathtaking. His own compositions were constructed to allow Parker the freedom to craft his revolutionary solos. In some ways, the Benedetti recordings are the most highly distilled version of Parker's brilliance: Bird, unencumbered and in free flight, giving vent to his seemingly limitless musical ideas. The solos were where the magic happened, and Parker, in good physical shape when Benedetti recorded him -is a wizard on these recordings. Despite all the painstaking effort, many of the Benedetti recordings are still of poor quality, and this set is not for everyone; a good place for beginners to start is Parker's small-group studio recordings. Getting the most out of this expensive collection requires a lot of work. But for those willing to make the commitment, the Benedetti recordings are more than a diamond in the rough: They are one of the great treasures of American art.
Fred Goodman,
Rolling Stone, February 7th, 1991


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