The Quintet – Live at Massey Hall (review)

Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Roach, Mingus – The Quintet – Live at Massey Hall (Debut / Concord Records) review Concord Records continues their series of reissuing classic jazz albums with remastered sound and new liner notes.

You can’t make this stuff up.  Five of the greatest jazz musicians of all-time come together for one night only and the room is half empty. This summit of future jazz legends was so highly regarded that the promoters scheduled a boxing match during the intermission of the concert.  Unbelievable.  But, probably the most amazing thing about Jazz at Massey Hall is that this once-in-a-lifetime event was actually captured on tape on a single microphone placed in front of the stage.

When Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass) and Max Roach (drums), were invited by the New Jazz Society to play a one-off concert in Toronto in 1953, no one had any idea we’d be talking about this show as one of the greatest in jazz history.  Since this was a single concert, and not a tour, or even a series of shows, there were literally no rehearsals – the five musicians simply showed up, briefly discussed the evening’s setlist and began to play.  Of course, we’re talking musicians who had been playing for years as masters of their craft – Parker alone had been a fixture on the jazz scene for almost 15 years – so they were certainly up for the challenge.

The album’s fidelity is amazingly good, considering the fact that Mingus had borrowed a tape machine to document the event, but probably never envisioned releasing it, until he played the recordings back.  In a ironic twist, the one instrument that did not record well was Mingus’ bass, so he actually overdubbed several parts later in the studio.  There’s a herky-jerky quality to some of the in-between song transitions – bad edits, and there are several instances where you can tell parts have been spliced out.  But again, considering how primitively this concert was recorded, it’s amazing we got anything at all.

It’s obvious the musicians are having fun – during the opening track, “Perdido,” while Parker is playing a furious solo, you can hear the crowd laughing; certainly due to Gillespie’s clowning.  The classic version of the trumpeter’s “Salt Peanuts,” one of the most famous in all of jazz, was documented on this date.  It’s no surprise that a great deal of the material focuses on bop, since that was the scene that most of these men came from.  Yet, even in the gentle “All the Things You Are / 52nd Street Theme,” they manage to sizzle.  There is a certain amount of telepathy that seems to happen between Parker and Gillespie, especially on “Wee (Allen’s Alley),” they seem to anticipate the other’s notes – again, with no rehearsing.

The new remaster contains no new material (how could it –  this is the only tape that has survived), yet it has a little more high end than the version that came out originally on CD back in 1989.  There’s also an excellent essay by jazz historian Ashley Kahn, which sheds a little more light on this monumental recording.  An unlikely document of five legendary jazz performers, improvising and having fun – doing what they do best.  –Tony Peters