Charlie Parker: A Closer Look

Improvisation, Jazz, online lessons, saxophone lessons

Analysing Charlie Parker’s Solo on “Au Privave”

Analysing Charlie Parker's solo on "Au Privave".
The Legendary Charlie Parker, Photo Credit: William P Gottlieb

It’s recently been the 100th birthday of the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. Most musicians, and jazz enthusiasts know that he was (and still is) a huge influence on the music, but don’t necessarily understand why. I therefore decided to not only post a transcription of one of his solos, but take a closer look at what he actually plays so we can try and understand his genius (even if it’s just a little bit)!

The Melody

The tune “Au Privave” is a 12 bar blues with a fairly typical bebop version of the chord progression in the key of F major (concert pitch). There is a slight deviation from the standard bebop chord progression for a blues in bar 2 during the melody, where we have a II-V in F major (G-7 C7) and not the usual chord IV (Bb7) for a blues. However, we do find the chord IV in bar 2 reinstated for most of Parker’s solo.

The melody itself is very fragmented and quite angular in nature, again a common trait for bebop. There are also some quite dissonant parts to the melody, notably the Bb crotchet in bar 4, a b13 in relation to the D7 chord (ed. from now on I’ll talk in alto saxophone pitch), and the long accentuated G# dotted crotchet of bar 5, a b9 in relation to the G7 chord. This G# is particularly interesting as whilst it is the b9 of G7 it actually just forms part of phrase derived solely from D blues scale (D, F, G, G#, A, C, D). This example helps show that whilst Parker no doubt pushed the harmonic boundaries of jazz, he definitely did not forget the roots of this wonderful music.

The Solo: Main Things To Learn

Bird’s solo on “Au Privave” is a great one to study as he demonstrates so much language in just three short choruses.

What I find striking is his use of arpeggios throughout and his placement of chordal tones in key areas. Whilst scales are clearly important, the chord is king. Bird mostly places chord tones on the beat with often either diatonic or chromatic notes acting as passing tones when he plays lines of quavers. I’ve highlighted examples of both instances in the transcription.

Take a look at Bird’s use of tension in his lines. For example look at the very first phrase, where he lands a G# squarely on beat 4 at the start. This is certainly intentional as it creates a tension that the rest of the phrase bounces off. Another example would be Parker’s use of the 4th creating a tension which then resolves to the 3rd of the chord (we find this all the way back in Bach!) eg. in bars 16 and 28.

Those of us aiming to play with a bebop style sound when improvising need to learn to incorporate enclosures into our lines. An enclosure is a melodic device and a key part of the bebop sound. Essentially, you circle around a chordal tone, either delaying or accentuating its placement. Usually, the preceding notes are taken from outside the key for greater effect, but this is not always the case. In the solo transcription look out for the abbreviation “ENC.”. This is where you can see Parker’s use of enclosures. There are four instances of them.

The Solo: Other Points of Interest

  • As with the melody, we can hear Parker use the blues scale during his solo, again over a G7 chord (bar 39).
  • His use E harmonic minor the III-VI in bar 8 of the blues progression (bar 21 and implied albeit incomplete again in bar 45).
  • During the semiquaver passage, check out Parker’s use of chromaticism and implied harmony to create falling patterns.
  • Even though there are lots of dominant 7th chords in the piece, there are only two uses of diminished scales (bars 30-31 and 46-47)

The Transcription

Charlie Parker's solo on Au Privave: Page 1
Charlie Parker’s Solo on Au Privave: Page 1
Charlie Parker's solo on Au Privave: Page 2
Charlie Parker’s Solo on Au Privave: Page 2

Here’s a PDF version of the transcription and analysis for you to download and keep: –

How To Practise The Transcription

As with all of my transcriptions I suggest you learn to play it as fluently as possible, and ideally memorise it.

Take a listen to the recording below and focus on the way Charlie Parker phrases his lines. Bird has such an effortless sound when he improvises. It’s well worth trying to emulate that feel when we play!

Also note that Parker doesn’t always swing his quavers. Sometimes he evens out and delays his lines (eg. bars 39 and 43). It’s a great device to use to create interest in your solos when used tastefully.

There are some fantastic lines in the solo that we can use as “licks” and incorporate into our own solos. For example, the line that runs from bars 20-24 is a personal favourite of mine. You can often hear me use parts (or all!) of it in my solos.

Take a line that you like and memorise it, but also note the chord that the line gets played over and its function within the harmony of the piece. You need to internalise the sound of the line to be able to recall and place it in the right context. Once you know how it sounds and fits over the relevant chord, try and transpose it to as many keys as possible. Ideally all twelve of them! It’s an arduous task but truly worth it, so best of luck!

Further Study of Charlie Parker

No serious jazz musician’s library is complete without a copy of the Charlie Parker Omnibook. Whilst there are errors to be found in some of the transcriptions, it is still an invaluable tool for those looking to learn how to improvise and so well worth owning.

I recommend that all saxophonist’s own the Eb edition, even if they only play tenor or soprano saxophones. This is because you’ll be studying the exact notes that Charlie Parker played and not transposed versions, giving you a better insight to his genius and thought process. A great deal of what Charlie Parker plays falls really nicely under the fingers and so make the most of it!

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, and get a kick from playing and studying this wonderful solo by Charlie Parker too!

There are some really useful things to take away from analysing this solo. As mentioned above, particularly Parker’s use of enclosures is a key sound of Bebop and so vital for us to learn and try and incorporate in our own playing.

However, at other times his playing is surprisingly simple and diatonic (eg. bar 15). Something perhaps, that evening the best of us can learn from.

Also, sometimes as a jazz musician we can be “sniffy” towards the blues scale, but we really shouldn’t be. If it’s good enough for the great Charlie Parker, it’s certainly good enough for us!

Finally, having not only transcribed but analysed this solo I feel that I have learnt so much. I really can’t recommend enough that it’s not only worth transcribing solos by the Masters, but also to take a closer look at what they played and how it relates to the underlying harmony of the piece.

If you have any queries or comments about the solo or my analysis of it, please do comment below or drop me an email. I’d love to know your thoughts about Bird’s playing. I find it such an inspiration!

You can find out more about taking saxophone lessons with me here, or do just get in touch at any time. I’d love to hear from you!

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