Dial Records was just one of many small, independent jazz labels to spring up in the immediate aftermath of World War II. There was a void to be filled: due to price changes and scarcity of materials, major labels simply found it unprofitable to be in the jazz business. Operators who could survive on the narrow margins available saw the opportunity this presented, and dove in headlong. Thus, from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, much of the best jazz was released on independent labels, frequently with a narrow focus and only a few key artists.

In Dial’s case, that key artist was Charlie Parker. The alto saxophonist had been recording for the New York-based Savoy label in 1944 and 1945, but in February 1946 he signed an exclusive contract with Dial, and would ultimately record nearly three dozen tracks for them over the course of seven sessions, three in New York and four in California. These, along with the rest of Dial’s output, have been compiled in many different ways since the 1940s, and are newly organized in the new, nine-CD Mosaic Records box The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions.

While the Parker recordings (which also feature trumpeters Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Howard McGhee, tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson, trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianists Erroll Garner and Duke Jordan, and drummer Max Roach, among many others) are the best-known music from Dial, there are 10 sessions on this box by other musicians. These include solo and trio dates by Garner; three sessions led by or featuring tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon; a set co-led by trumpeter Sonny Berman, trombonist Bill Harris, and pianist Ralph Burns; and work by McGhee, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and singer Earl Coleman, accompanied by trumpeter Fats Navarro. There are also a few Parker sessions on which he steps away from the microphone for a few tracks, allowing the rest of the band to record material for release under someone else’s name.

Charlie Parker died on March 12, 1955—60 years ago last month. In those 60 years, his records have never gone out of print. He’s one of the most admired and studied musicians in jazz history—along with Louis Armstrong, John ColtraneMiles Davis and Duke Ellington, he’s a) one of the few jazz players whose work every fan of the music is expected to be at least middlingly familiar with, and b) one a normal, non-jazz-listening person might have heard of. So it’s not really important to talk much about the Parker material in this box. If you’ve never heard anything by Charlie Parker, this (and the material recorded for Savoy, which immediately preceded it) is the stuff to hear, but the three-CD Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes, from 2002 (get it from Amazon), is the better starting point, for reasons I’ll get into below.

The more obscure material on The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions is what makes the set worthwhile, the Dexter Gordon tracks in particular. Gordon’s best-known material is probably his string of Blue Note albums from the 1960s, but he earned a reputation early on with these Dial recordings, most notably “The Chase,” a nearly seven-minute showcase for him and fellow tenor player Wardell Gray. After a punchy melodic statement, the two men trade solos atop a simple but swinging foundation laid down by pianist Jimmy Bunn, bassist Red Callender, and drummer Chuck Thompson, returning to the melody after each round. The recording is a recreation of something the two men had been regularly doing live in L.A. clubs; Gray’s relatively lighter tone and fleet runs are perfectly balanced by Gordon’s thick, metallically buzzing sound, and the result is an exciting workout that feels much shorter than it is. Minus Gray, Gordon recorded several other quality tunes for Dial, including a session at which his band featured trombonist Melba Liston, one of the few female instrumentalists on the scene at that time. Her solos on “Mischievous Lady” and “Lullaby in Rhythm” are fairly short, and stick close to the melody, but she’s got a nice, not overly full or growly, tone.

The sessions led by pianists are also very interesting. Dodo Marmarosa‘s trio featured Harry Babasin on cello, rather than bass, and Jackie Mills on drums, and while Babasin was plucking the strings, not bowing them, there’s nevertheless something uniquely buoyant about his sound; he sits comfortably between Marmarosa’s Bud Powell-indebted piano and Mills’ aggressive drumming. The sheer energy of these tracks, particularly “Dodo’s Dance,” which almost sounds like it’s playing at the wrong speed, is breathtaking, demonstrating perfectly one of the ways bebop can be said to have doomed jazz’s commercial prospects, by rendering it un-danceable. The solo recordings by Erroll Garner (a schoolmate of Marmarosa’s in Pittsburgh) are more appealing to the average listener, as even without a rhythm section, they get deep into swing and the blues. Even when he’s going on classical-ish tangents and ending phrases with sharp clangs or dissonant pings, there’s an underlying “song-ness,” for lack of a better word, to it all.

The biggest problem with The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions is revealed by the second and final words of its title. This isn’t a compilation, it’s an archive, and Mosaic has structured it that way. Each recording session is presented in its entirety, and there are alternate takes aplenty. Disc I begins with three versions of “Hallelujah,” and after two versions each of “Get Happy” and “Slam Slam Blues,” we get five versions of “Congo Blues” (two of which are false starts, which compounds the annoyance factor). This set is not designed for the casual listener—it’s for scholars who want to sit down and pick apart Charlie Parker‘s solos on each version of “Cool Blues” or “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” (there are four of each, on Discs IV and V, respectively). The structure does a disservice to the music from a listening-for-pleasure standpoint. Someone interested in hearing what’s great about this music (and it’s undeniably great music; even the stuff with vocals is at worst tolerable) would be better off importing it all into an iPod and hitting Shuffle, rather than going disc by disc. And that’s if you’re looking to check out the non-Parker material; if you’re coming to this set for Parker alone, as mentioned above, you’re better off with The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes, which includes material from 1944 and 1945 and gives you only one take of each song. But if you’re after a full portrait of what one enterprising indie jazz label was up to at the end of the 1940s, The Complete Dial Modern Jazz Sessions (which includes a terrific booklet featuring notes by one of the label’s founders) is about as one-stop a document as you could ever ask for. Buy it from Mosaic.

Phil Freeman

Stream five tracks from the set:

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