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Listening Post: Previously unheard music by Charlie Parker; Andre Watts’ first 20 years

JAZZ

Charlie Parker, “Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes” (Verve/UM, two discs) Say WHAT? Hold the phone. Are they telling us hereby that there were “58 previously unknown never-listed studio takes of Charlie Parker, providing heretofore unheard improvisations?” So they are. All right, let’s admit it’s a two-disc set of fragments and rejects but the output of Charlie Parker – arguably the most influential musician in jazz history (even more than Louis Armstrong) – is the Holy Grail of Bebop. “Bird” heard in the 21st century will be, to many, an acquired taste. In so much of his music there is a daunting chill of competitive virtuosity – a kind of technical domination meant as much as a proclamation of indomitability to other musicians as a joyous message for listeners. But that’s why there’s always a kind of exciting rightness about the release of so much Charlie Parker in piecemeal takes, heard in fits and starts. You’re listening to an astonishingly creative and powerful musician in competition with himself. As annoying as incomplete takes can sometimes be, this is music by one of the greatest imaginations in jazz history. Along with him you’ll find Kenny Dorham, Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich. A great 21st century jazz discovery. Four stars out of four. (Jeff Simon)

CLASSICAL

Andre Watts, “The Complete Columbia Album Collection” (Sony Classical, 12 discs). It’s a funny thing about the great stars of classical piano. It’s not always the case that those whose skyrocketing fame involves significantly extra-musical matters are, therefore, musicians of lesser repute. In the case of two, once-young superstars who first captured the public for extra-musical reasons, they were by any assay, great musicians by even the most stringent standards. Neither Van Cliburn or Andre Watts in their youth were creatures of publicity and nothing else. Far from it. These recordings by the young Andre Watts, fresh from tutelage by the great Leon Fleisher at first and later under the significant musicial care of Leonard Bernstein, reveal him to be vastly more than a superstar composed of more flash and filigree than music. In his notes for this terrific box set, Jed Distler writes “Watts had a way of conveying glamour and dignity at the same time. There were no ostentatious gestures or heroics, but I’d never heard a piano sound so full, even if softer selections.” Watts calls Schubert his “desert island composer”. And yet when it comes to playing Liszt’s “Totentanz” – which even Liszt cheerfully called a “monstrosity” – Watts is capable of all the theatricality built into one of the most enjoyable theatrical pieces in the the Romantic piano repertoire. This is Watts from 1963 to 1980 – live concerts and studio performances, everything from Scarlatti, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahams to Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Ravel. Four stars out of four. (Jeff Simon)