The label boasts an impressive number of firsts, having sponsored many of bebop's giants for their debut sessions as leaders. The most significant chunk of these is presented on Charlie Parker's Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes. Parker was the final piece in the bebop puzzle: His alto sax solos — containing so many notes that other musicians would have to slow down the records to make sense of them — were the melodic justification for the innovations by Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others. This set represents the first half of Parker's prime, before he moved to Verve, and is some of the greatest, most invigorating music ever recorded.
Parker recorded so much for Savoy that they can fill three discs without repeating any tunes. Other beboppers, such as Stan Getz, can fit their entire work for the label, alternate takes and all, on a single CD. Getz is better known for his later bossa nova years, but his fluid tenor sax work is already wonderful on the Complete Savoy Recordings, where the soloist was a mere 18 years old. At the other end of the spectrum, legendary saxophonist Lester Young had already seen his most famous period (in the '30s, with Count Basie and Billie Holiday) when he went to work for the label, but that doesn't mean his playing had declined. Savoy's new two-disc set (guess the name for yourself) sometimes presents as many as five consecutive takes of a tune; that's a distraction for casual listeners, but there's a tremendous range of feeling here, from a musician known for spilling his heart on his reeds. (Lest the latest wave of reissues make you think Savoy was sax-centric, it has also put out a swinging set of sides by Billy Eckstine, the singer whose big bands were a breeding ground for bop's instrumentalists.)
Those who question the value of alternate takes would do well to look at another new release, Glenn Gould's A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (Sony Classical). Wonder pairs two views of the master pianist, one at the beginning of his American career, one just before his death at 50. The material is the same work by J.S. Bach, but 26 years have made the performer a different man, one who abandoned live performance altogether and shuttered himself in, making recordings at his own deliberate pace. (That later hermit-like existence is in evidence on the last disc of this set, which contains an "interview" in which the artist wrote both the questions and answers himself, and invited a journalist to pretend that he was getting full access to him.)
The first recording has long been regarded as one of the masterpieces of recorded piano performance; the later one is more controversial. Ironically, the latter has always suffered from supposed advances in technology: Digital recording was very new in 1981, and engineers hadn't learned to deal with its quirks. Fortunately, Gould's 1981 performance was recorded simultaneously to both formats; for the first time, this release uses the analog tape as a starting point for a painstaking restoration.
A detailed comparison of the two recordings would take more space and more expertise than I have — search www.slate.com for "Glenn Gould," and you'll find a thoughtful analysis by Erik Tarloff. Suffice to say that it's a worthwhile comparison to make, one that wasn't quite possible before this release, and one you don't have to be a classical-music nerd to appreciate. Not that there's anything wrong with classical-music nerds, of course.