Charlie Parker Sketches: 3. Embraceable You, Irreplaceable You
Charlie Parker recorded his completely unique take on George and Ira Gershwin’s Embraceable You for Dial on October 28, 1947. Returned to New York after 16 month haze in California, which included a stay at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a parting with Dizzy Gillespie, new developments in bop, and for Parker, a period of debauchery and genuine insanity.He was later sent back to New York, chaperoned to the airport by Dial producer Ross Russell.
Whatever wounds and embarrassment Parker carried into the NYC’s Dial recording studio, he nevertheless still wielded the influence to assemble a formidable lineup. His quintet in those days consisted of well-respected bassist Tommy Potter and pianist Duke Jordan, alongside the now–and even then–deified figures of Max Roach and Miles Davis (brought in from Julliard, as what Russell calls “Charlie’s first and last choice on trumpet.”). Parker was near the peak of his creative powers. Parker quickly reestablished himself in New York as an expert saxophonist, junkie, drunk, and cunnilingust, constantly making explicit sexual advances towards the women in clubs. A man with deep appetites that were linked together in a desire for transcendence, of any kind–whether sublime or piecemeal. Whatever was available was what came next.
Dial had moved its operations relating to Parker eastward to accommodate the musician’s relocation. Bird and the Quintet captured six classic takes in a mere four hours. Russell later described the session as a “scene of undistracted and concentrated creativity,” and Parker’s difficult behavior and unending demands were accepted as the cost of genius. Two hours after getting a fix in the bathroom of Dial’s New York studios, Parker recorded on of the his most celebrated pieces from this period–his extensive revision of George and Ira Gershwin’s Embraceable You.
Embraceable You clearly demonstrates that Parker’s versions of standards are essentially original compositions. Russell, whose relationship with Parker was tumultuous to say the least, calls the performance on this track, “one of the famous ballad improvisations in fifty years of jazz discography.” Elaborating on the track’s breakthroughs, Russell writes: “From the pretty, sentimental original melody of Embraceable You, Charlie created a new and finer melody. […] In the third measure…the phrase comes to rest on a significant note, a marvelous B-natural (the thirteenth). With that essential B, Charlie invests Embraceable You with his own magic.” Elaborating on the complexity of Parker’s “magic” on Embraceable You, jazz and blues historian Ted Gioia writes: “A musicologist could spend a hundred pages trying to describe what Parker tossed out in almost as many seconds. But it’s better just to sit back and enjoy this example of the great altoist playing at the top of his game.” Critically regarded as a masterpiece, the genius of this track share’s little more than the title with George Gershwin’s original masterwork.
To get a sense of Bird’s sense of the blues and ability to inject a tune with melancholy, by way of contrast take a listen to Judy Garland’s version from the 1943 version ofGirl Crazy, embedded above. An enjoyable musical romp no doubt, but Bird’s improvisation and grasp of the darker sides of longing and despair are nowhere present in Judy Garland’s captivating naivete and sunny demeanor. The two versions serve as inverses of one another, with Parker once again using the outlines of something familiar and even gentle to take post-war America into deep and untouched and hidden desires. The embraceable “you” becomes that longed for thing to take us out of wherever we’re at.
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