Charlie Parker: Funky Blues


Funky Blues


Charlie Parker (alto sax)


Jam Session (Verve 833564)

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Charlie Parker (alto sax), Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Benny Carter (alto sax), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Oscar Peterson (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Ray Brown (bass),

Flip Phillips (tenor sax), J.C. Heard (drums)


Composed by Johnny Hodges


Recorded: Hollywood, CA, July 1952


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This performance highlights the difference between Parker's form of expression on the blues in contrast to the approaches that came before him. I am indebted to saxophone master Von Freeman for initially pointing out these observations.

Obviously this recording was altered to highlight the differences between these players, as Hodges and Carter were the two major alto saxophone stylists during the era before Parker arrived on the scene. Based on the jump in tempo after Bird's statement, you can hear that the original recording was edited so that Benny Carter's statement would follow Bird's. Clearly, this was not how it was originally recorded.

The two older alto saxophonists are East Coast players; Hodges from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Carter from New York City. During that time, a player's musical style seemed to reflect the region of the country they came from; regional differences seemed more pronounced than they are today. Of course, these differences had little to do with the level of musicianship, but they did seem to show up in some of the stylistic tendencies of the players. This is not at all meant as a critique. I only wish to point out that each of these players had different approaches to the Blues idiom, and some of that was a reflection of which area of the country they came from.

Bird was a blues player by nature. In terms of emotional content Parker was not very different from other blues players from this part of the country (south Midwest). However, what Parker introduced to the music was a level of hip sophistication that generally had not been previously expressed in this musical form. Tenor saxophonist Von Freeman calls it the university blues, versus what came before. What he is referring to is the ability to preach while simultaneously being able to interject very sophisticated melodic voice-leading. This performance by Parker is a clear example, although there are many. The preaching begins right from the outset, complete with exclamations and repeated gestures for emphasis. Bird's clear and self-assured, hard-edged sound, lacking in the exaggerated vibrato of the earlier stylists, already signals a markedly different approach to the blues, one in which the inflections are more subtle than in the previous era.

This first appearance of more complex voice-leading occurs at the beginning of what's called the turnback (2:28), a pivot area in the seventh through eighth measures that progresses from the subdominant through the tonic and dominant areas, then back towards the subdominant, where Bird's spontaneous melody perfectly follows Ray Brown's bass line. The cadential target on the upbeat of the end middle of this phrase (2:30) rhymes with the target upbeat cadence at the end (2:34) via the adroit use of contour and paraphrase. The next phrase flips the cadential targets from upbeat to downbeat, while simultaneously slightly lengthening the cadences, in a motion leading to the tonic. However, immediately upon touching the tonic, Bird progresses to the subdominant. This chorus ends with a blues-tinged afterthought.

The second chorus begins with a miniature version of a classic blues form, against the background chorus of the other horns functioning as the congregation to Bird's preaching. The opening phrase is repeated three times in an I don't believe ya heard me form, with the middle phrase as the darker lunar expression (i.e., subdominant). After this bluesy statement, beginning in the fourth measure, Bird, in a whispering statement that feels like an explanation, shifts gears into a level of sophistication rarely heard in the blues of this time. In the sixth measure (3:07), Parker literally falls out of this mode of playing, through an alternate tonal path in the form of a descending semi-pentatonic figure, again melodically shadowing Brown's bass line with sophisticated rising and falling voice-leading in the crucial pivoting area of seventh and eighth measures, hitting every passing tonality while still maintaining his melodic emphasis. Moving into the tenth measure (3:19), Parker again shifts into the overdrive, ascending as a light color, squeezing out the top of the line, descending using shifting darker hues, then moving towards the subdominant before doubling back on a darker dominant path towards the tonic.

Normally, this level of detail was not expressed prior to Parker's arrival on the scene (of course there were exceptions like Art Tatum and Don Byas). The piano players at that time generally knew more about harmony than most of the horn players, but these pianists usually expressed this level of detail as chordal figures, not intricate melodic figures. In Parker's case, the sophistication is expressed in the form of extremely melodic and expressive voice-like phrases, not simply as basic patterns.

I believe that one key to Bird's melodic concept is that each individual part of every phrase is a melody in miniature, a fractal-like concept where even the smaller melodic segments are balanced melodically within themselves. This is coupled with an uncanny ability to utilize what I call connectants, small chain-like phrases or hooks (not in the sense of today's popular music) that are used to connect the melodic cells through a complicated process analogous to weaving or the peptide bonds that connect amino acids in RNA chains. Bird had a strong sense of the nature of melody, from its more primitive constituents to a more universal point of view.

Parker's innate sense of balance was incredible, as is clearly demonstrated at the end of this solo. Whereas most players today with his level of technique would feel a need to follow the harmony explicitly, Bird is able to suggest the voice-lead just with the shape of his pentatonic and diatonic line, using a well developed sense of just where to rhythmically place the tones that lead by proximity to the target pitches that express the passing tonalities. With Parker it is the melodic contour and path which rules supreme, not the tones in a particular chord. The difference is subtle.

Finally, I would like to state that I think of these slow versions of the blues as examples of secular rituals. In much West African music there is this constant interplay of 3 communing with 2, an intimate marriage of the ternary feel (called perfect meter in medieval times because it was related to the Trinity) and the duple feel (imperfect meter). The intervals of the Perfect Fifth and Perfect Fourth were called perfect for this same reason, as they were associated with the number 3, considered perfect since ancient times. This was also true in early European music. For example, the metered sections of some Notre Dame organum as well as some of the secular music of medieval times was typically governed by rhythmic modes which were all expressed in triple meter to symbolize the Trinity. So in some ways, this connects to what Dizzy called Parker's Sanctified Rhythms.

If you listen carefully to Parker's opening phrase, it is almost completely in a kind of ternary feel, and this is true of the most blues-inflected parts of his performance. Other slow blues that he performed (for example "Cosmic Rays") exhibit this same tendency.

Reviewer: Steve Coleman

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