What would the late Charlie Parker have thought about the idea of electronically isolating his jazz solos on certain of his recordings, and then using a new set of musicians to play the backup music? This is a question raised by the technique used by Clint Eastwood and Lennie Niehaus, director and musical director, respectively, of ``Bird,'' the new film based on the life of Charlie Parker. Mr. Eastwood wanted the immediacy of a live performance, so he was faced with the choice of either finding a reasonable Charlie Parker clone or trying to make it work with Bird's own playing. He preferred using the original, but most of Parker's albums featured solos that were ``studio length'' rather than long enough to be convincing as a live performance. So Eastwood did some detective work and came up with a series of rare, unissued tapes of some of Bird's longer solos.
Once the tapes were found, Eastwood discovered that the sound on many of them was poor, especially the sound of piano, bass, and drums. So he and Niehaus got the idea of taking the tapes to a studio and having an engineer try to isolate Parker's solos and wipe out everything else. The result was that Bird's alto sax solos themselves sounded fine. So they kept the solos and replaced the rhythm sections with new tracks played by pianists Monty Alexander and Barry Harris, bassists Ray Brown and Ron Carter, drummer John Guerin, and others.
Although the result looks and sounds very good in the film, the technique used by Niehaus and Eastwood has raised some questions about the ethics of tampering with original recordings. The concern seems to be that, once begun, there could be no end to such tampering, and that the artists in question have no control over it.
I spoke with Gary Giddins, jazz critic of the Village Voice in New York and author of a book titled ``Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker,'' to see what he thought about this potentially controversial technique.
``I think it's a brilliant touch in the movie, and it's the only way that [Eastwood] could use Parker's music instead of using a sound-alike,'' Mr. Giddins said.
But when it comes to the sound-track album, Giddins adopts a slightly different view: ``When they put it out on a record on CBS, the purist in me comes out.'' Referring to Parker's original recordings, he adds, ``On record I don't mind scratchiness. I don't mind the fact that there are abrupt cuts, or whatever, because it's Bird; it's Max Roach. It's the way it was done that day.''
Nevertheless, he doesn't view the release of the album as a serious artistic infringement. ``It's just another way of hearing Bird; it doesn't replace anything.''
On the other hand, Herb Pomeroy, a trumpeter and bandleader who teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and who played and recorded with Charlie Parker, takes a stronger view. In a telephone interview he stated, ``To take [Parker's solos] out of their real context is totally untruthful. I feel that very strongly. There's nothing as dear to me as Bird.... It's lacking in artistic integrity.''
And, he added, ``If they are able to isolate [Parker's] solo from a recording and make it non-scratchy, why couldn't the total recording be made non-scratchy? If that was the reason....''
I suggested that perhaps one reason might have been that the other musicians weren't too good, since it's well known that Parker did play with some inferior rhythm sections.
``If so, then I guess that dilutes my violence and anger a little!'' said Pomeroy with a laugh.
An ``up'' side to the controversy is that, not only is the ``Bird'' sound track selling very well, but the movie has apparently stimulated sales of ``real'' Charlie Parker recordings as well, including some of those listed here:
One Night in Washington, Charlie Parker with strings (Elektra).
Bird: The Savoy Recordings - Master Takes, 1944-48 (Savoy).
Verve Years, 1950-51 and Verve Years, 1952-54. (Verve).
Charlie Parker on Dial, Vols 1-6. (Spotlite).