There's no denying the weight of history on these tracks -- 14 out of 35 here are also on Rhino's two-CD Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection. Several titles -- "Moose the Mooche," "Yardbird Suite," "Ornithology," "Relaxin' at Camarillo," "Klact-Oveeseds-Tene," "Scrapple from the Apple" -- have been written about so much they're part of the common vocabulary of jazz. What the two-CD Legendary Dial Masters truly offers is a trajectory -- you hear the inspired performances in the context of the lion's share of Bird's recordings from 1946-1947, and thus get a clearer idea of the milieu he moved in and the way his sound developed. But bear in mind that what was totally radical and trail-blazing in 1946 rapidly became a new orthodoxy copied by way too many others. In many ways, this music sounds so much like jazz is supposed to sound (you dig, man?) that it's hard to grasp why it was considered so groundbreaking. There's always Bird the fast and fluid, interval-jumping genius soloist -- the solo cult the rock world inaugurated with Cream and Jimi Hendrix began with Charlie Parker -- but the music surrounding him has lost a measure of freshness and distinctiveness in this post-bop world. The chronological break -- disc one is the Dial dates in Los Angeles, disc two the New York sessions -- is convenient but even more instructive. The L.A. Bird is riding a roller coaster, opening brilliantly with now-legendary pieces before the racehorse "Max (Is) Making Wax" introduces the infamous crash-and-burn session that ended with Parker off to Camarillo to get clean. He's clearly in trouble on these tracks (except for "Lover Man"), with his usual quicksilver fluidity replaced by fragmented, ragged blurts of alto. These are the hitting-bottom performances that casual Bird listeners don't get exposed to, and it's illuminating to hear them in context here. And The Complete Dial Sessions also shows how Parker was eased back in, first as featured soloist behind vocalist Earl Coleman and two originals with strong support from pianist Erroll Garner. The next session was a septet with trumpeter Howard McGhee (who brilliantly carried Bird's recordings during those hard times) and tenor man Wardell Gray to cushion him on his climb back up from the depths. They're not necessarily brilliant, save for the bright swagger of "Relaxin' at Camarillo," but the tracks definitely show the musical curve on an upswing.
Then Parker hits New York, and it's like bingo! Bird's arrived. He's got a stable quintet (with J.J. Johnson added on trombone for the last six tracks) of his own guys and they're perfectly in sync, with Max Roach providing tons of cymbal drive. And Bird's there, sounding totally settled into what he's doing. It's bebop, it's classic stuff, and it renders commentary superfluous in some ways since everyone knows the general outlines. You can wonder why "The Hymn" isn't better known with its gospel touches after a wailing Bird fades in mid-solo over Roach, or why the sextet pieces generally sound subdued. You can note solos like "Bird of Paradise," the famous "Embraceable You," or "Bird Feathers," even in an era of 78s when three-minute sides imposed time limits that clearly stopped Bird in his tracks just when he was taking off on some other solos here. You can say "Klact-Oveeseds-Tene" (great harmonies and rangy extended melody) and "Scrapple from the Apple" deserve their places in the Parker pantheon and "Bongo Beep" is a very familiar melody (used before under another name?), with Bird's high-stepping solo probably his best on the sextet pieces. On the technical side, scratchy 78 sound tends to dominate, but students of jazzology will appreciate the credit for the song source of the chord changes for each piece. You miss some legendary high spots -- like "Koko" or the key recordings with Dizzy Gillespie -- because of the exclusive focus on Dial, so the Rhino compilation is arguably still a bit stronger as an overview introduction to a giant like Charlie Parker. But The Complete Dial Sessions is a great complement to Yardbird Suite by throwing into relief the whole context of key sessions that literally shook the foundations of American music and became the cornerstone of modern jazz.