Charlie Parker: Ko-Ko (1948 live version)




Charlie Parker (alto sax)


Complete Royal Roost Live (Savoy)

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Charlie Parker (alto sax), Miles Davis (trumpet), Max Roach (drums), Tadd Dameron (piano), Curly Russell (bass).

Composed by Charlie Parker


Recorded: Royal Roost, New York, September 4 1948


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This is one of the slickest melodies that I've ever heard. And the manner in which it is played is just sophisticated slang at its highest level. The way the melody weaves back and forth is unreal, and Yard and Max keep this kind of motion going in the spontaneous part of the song.

I'm a big boxing fan, and I see a lot of similarities between boxing and music. To be more specific, I should say that I see similarities between boxing and music that are done a certain way. There was a point in round eight of the December 8, 2007, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. versus Ricky Hatton fight, starting with an uppercut at 0:44 of this video (2:19 of the round), and also beginning with the check left hook at 2:22 of the video (0:42 of the round) when Floyd was really beginning to open up on Ricky, hitting him with punches coming from different angles in an unpredictable rhythm. If you listen to this fight with headphones on you can almost hear the musicality of the rhythm of the punches. Mayweather was throwing body shots (i.e. punches) and head shots, all coming from different angles: hooks, crosses, straight shots, uppercuts, jabs, an assortment of punches in an unpredictable rhythm. But it's not only that Mayweather's rhythm that was unpredictable, It was also the groove that he got into.

In my opinion, the work of Max Roach in this performance of "Ko-Ko" is very similar to the smooth, fluent, unpredictable groove that elite fighters like Mayweather, Jr., employ. The interplay of Max's drumming with Bird's improvisation sets up a very similar feel to what I saw in Mayweather's rhythm. Near the end of "Ko-Ko," at 2:15, Max does exactly this same kind of boxer motion, accompanying the second half of Miles' interlude improvisation and continuing into Bird's improvisation, only in this case it is like a counterpoint, a conversation in slang between Yard and Max. This is a technique that is both seen and heard throughout the African Diaspora. A certain amount of trickery is involved, a slickness that is demonstrated, for example, by the cross-over dribble and other moves of athletes—for example, the 'ankle-breaking' moves of basketball player Allan Iverson. In addition to this, Max's solo just before the head out is absolutely masterful. Try listening to it at half speed if you can.

This was the first Charlie Parker recording that I ever heard, as it was the first cut on side A of an album (remember those?) that my father gave me. And I can still vividly remember my response—I had absolutely NO IDEA of what was going on in terms of structure or anything else. It all seemed so esoteric and mysterious to me, as I was previously exposed to the more explicit forms of these rhythmic devices as presented in the popular African-American music that I grew up listening to. Compared to music that I had been listening to when I was younger (before the age of 17), the detailed structures in the music of Parker and his associates were moving so much more quickly, with greater subtlety and on a much more sophisticated level than I was accustomed to. However from the beginning, while listening to this music, I did intuitively get the distinct impression of communication, that the music sounded like conversations.

In discussing "Ko-Ko," first of all the rhythm of the head is like something from the hood, but on Mars! In the form and movement there is so much hesitation, backpedaling, and stratification. The ever-present phrasing in groups of three and the way the melody shifts in uneven groups, dividing the 32 beats into an unpredictable pattern of 3-3-2-2-3-3-2-2-1-3-4-4. By backpedaling I mean the way that the rhythmic patterns seem to reverse in movement; for example the 8s are broken up as 3-3-2, then as 2-3-3. By hesitation I am referring to the way the next 8 is broken up as 2-2-1-3, as kind of stuttering movement.

The opening melody of "Ko-Ko"

Stratification is just my term for the funky nature of the melody and Max's accompaniment. With this music I always paid more attention to the melody, drums and bass; however, this song form is composed of only melody and drums, with Max's part being spontaneously composed. The way Max scrapes the brushes rhythmically across the snare, frequently pivoting in unpredictable places, adds to the elusiveness and sophistication of this performance. For example, during the head and under Miles' first interlude improvisation (starting at measure 9), Max provides an esoteric commentary, filling in a little more as Parker enters (in measure 17)—however, the beat is always implicit, never directly stated. On this rendition of "Ko-Ko," Bird's temporal sense is so strong that his playing provides the clues for the uninitiated listener to find his/her balance.

Melody of "Ko-Ko", trumpet, sax, snare & bass drum:

One rarely hears this kind of commentary from drummers, as much of today's music is explicitly stated. The way Max chooses only specific parts of the melody to use as points for his commentary is part of what makes the rhythm so mysterious. Much is hinted at, instead of directly stated. This continues in the spontaneously composed sections of this performance, as Yard plays in a way where there are very hard accents which form an interplay with Max's spacious exclamations. Punches are being mixed here, some hard, some soft, upstairs and downstairs, in ways that form a hard-hitting but unpredictable groove. I've always felt that the obvious speed and virtuosity of this music obscures its more subtle dimensions from many listeners, almost as if only the initiates of some kind of secret order are able to understand it. This kind of slickness and dialog continues throughout this performance, building in ways that ebb and flow just as in a conversation. By the way Miles plays the F in measure 28 early; based on the original 1945 studio recording with Diz and Bird playing the melody, this F should fall on the first beat of measure 29. However, Yard and Max play their parts correctly, so the still developing Miles Davis probably had trouble negotiating this rapid tempo.

Spontaneously composed music can be analyzed in a similar fashion to counterpoint, in terms of the interaction of the voices. However, it is a counterpoint that has its own rules based on a natural order and intuitive-logic—what esoteric scholar and philosopher Schwaller de Lubicz referred to as Intelligence of the Heart. Also, in my opinion, the cultural DNA of the creators of this music should be taken into account, just as you should take environment and culture into account when studying any human endeavors. Max tends to play in a way that both interjects commentary between Bird's pauses and punctuates Parker's phrases with termination figures. For a drummer to do this effectively he/she must be very familiar with the manner of speaking of the soloist in order to be able to successfully anticipate the varied expressions.

I have heard many live recordings where it is clear that Max is anticipating Parker's sentence structures and applying the appropriate punctuation. This is not unusual; close friends frequently finish each other's sentences in conversations. With musicians such as Parker and Roach everything is internalized on a reflex level. As this music is rapidly moving sound being created somewhat spontaneously, I believe that the foreground mental activity occurs primarily on the semantic level in the mind, while the internalized, agreed-upon syntactic musical formations may be dealt with by some other more automated process, such as theorized by the concept of the mirror neuron system. What is striking here is the level that the conversations are occurring on—these are very deep subjects! Most of the time, critics and academics discuss this music in terms of individual musical accomplishments, and don't focus enough attention on the interplay. I feel this music first and foremost tells a story. There is definitely a conscious attempt to express the music using a conversational logic. So what I am saying is that while syntax is important, semantics is primary. Too often what the music refers to, or may refer to is ignored.

The last half of the bridge going into the last eight before Roach's solo (at 1:32) provides one of these rhythmic voice-leading points where Max goes into his boxing thing, playing some of the funkiest stuff I've heard. Just as instructive are the vocal exclamations of the musicians and possibly some initiated members of the audience, which form additional commentary. There is so much going on in this section that you could write a book about it; an entire world of possibilities is implied, as the rhythmic relationships are far more subtle than what is happening harmonically.

2nd half of last bridge and last 8 of "Ko-Ko", Bird’s solo

This illustrates that on these faster pieces Yard tended to play with bursts of sentences punctuated with shorter internal groupings using hard accents, whereas Max played in a way that effectively demarcated Parker's phrases with longer groupings setting up shifting epitritic patterns*. Max sets these patterns up by repeated figures designed to impress upon the listener a particular rhythmic form, only to suddenly displace the rhythm from what the listener was conditioned to expect. The passage above is a perfect example of this, setting up a hypnotic dance of 2-3-3, only to shift the expected equilibrium with the response of 2-1-3-1-1, then continuing with a slight variation of the initial dance.

Even the vocal exclamations of the musicians and audience members participates in what I consider to be secular ritualized performances. All of these features that I mention are traits that I consider to be a kind of musical DNA that has been retained from Africa. This music's level of sophistication demanded the intellectual as well as emotional participation of musicians and non-musicians alike (when they could get into the music, which not all people could). The rate of change of each instrument is also instructive. Obviously the soloists are in the foreground playing the instruments that have the swifter motion. In the case of this particular group, the bass would be approximately half the speed of the soloist, with the drums having a mercurial and protean function. In terms of commentaries, the drummer would be the next slowest after the bass and piano, and would be providing the slowest commentary from a rhythmic point of view. However, elements of the drum part are closer to the speed of the soloist.

*The epitritic ratio is 4 against 3; that is, Max playing the 4 against slow 3 (i.e. a slow pulse which is every 3 measures of 1/1 time). This ratio is used a lot on the continent of Africa.

Reviewer: Steve Coleman


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