Charlie Parker: Ornithology (Live at Birdland 1950)




Charlie Parker (alto sax)


One Night In Birdland (Columbia JG 34808)

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Charlie Parker (alto sax), Fats Navarro (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Curly Russell (bass), Art Blakey (drums).

Composed by Charlie Parker


Recorded: Birdland, New York, May 15 & 16 1950


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

I have owned several versions of this exact recording, and almost all of them are technically flawed in one way or another. My most complete version is a CD re-mastered with the help of the excellent drummer Kenny Washington, who pitch-corrected the recording. Also the complete Bud Powell solo is present in this recording, whereas on my original LP edition that I still own, Bud's solo was edited out.

These performances are some of the strongest that I have heard from these participants, but what makes this recording great for me is the fact that they are all performing and interacting together. Blakey provides a totally different kind of drum accompaniment than Max Roach. Nevertheless, Art's driving rhythms are very effective. But it is the front line of Parker, Navarro and Powell that is simply off the hook! Each soloist's performance is beyond words. These cats are truly spontaneous composers at the top of their game, their statements so precise they could have been composed on paper.

The first thing we hear is Bud's meandering intro, very loose as always, which starts harmonically as far away from his D pedal as possible, sliding from Ab major to A minor to Gmaj into Bird's opening statement of the melody. Despite the impression of rubato, Bud is actually playing in time in the intro to the song. It sounds to me like Bud was already playing when the recording was started, as the first sounds we hear are measure 3, beat 3 of an 8-measure intro. At any rate, what we hear from Bud is 51/2 measures (22 beats) before Yard enters.

A book could be written discussing just this one performance, but I'll only point out a few things here. We can learn a lot from the various versions of the spontaneous harmonies that Fats plays at the end of the melody, with the harmonization at the end of the song being different from the one at the beginning.

Fats Navarro's harmony on top staff, at the end of "Ornithology"

It seems to me that Fats' rhythmic conception and feel was the closest to Bird's among the trumpet players of this era. They are rhythmically as one going into the break of Bird's soaring solo. One of my favorite sections of this recording is the woman hollering "Go Baby" right after Parker's break, I even used to call this recording 'Go Baby!'

Fats Navarro's harmony on the top staff, going into Parker's solo on "Ornithology"

Parker's melody right after this exhortation seems to rhythmically answer the woman's voice. Bird seemed to have an intuitive grasp for the connection between musical and nonmusical expressions. Parker once mentioned the connection between music and the utterances of various animals to his band mates in the Jay McShann band on a tour through the Ozarks. His music was full of oblique coded references that could be understood by his colleagues on the bandstand and those musicians in the audience who were privy to this way of communicating. Bird also directly expressed to his last wife, Chan Parker, a desire to use music in a more overtly linguistic fashion, and he mentioned this to many musicians, such as bassist Charles Mingus (Charlie Parker, by Carl Woideck, pp 214-216).

I have an audio interview that Paul Desmond conducted with Charlie Parker, where Bird mentions how telling a story with music was for him the whole point:

CP: There's definitely stories and stories and stories that can be told in the musical idiom, you know. You wouldn't say idiom but it's so hard to describe music other than the basic way to describe it—music is basically melody, harmony, and rhythm. But, I mean, people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways, you know, all walks of life. Don't you agree, Paul?

PD: Yeah, and you always do have a story to tell. It's one of the most impressive things about everything I've ever heard of yours.

CP: That's more or less the object. That's what I thought it should be.

Most people take this in a non-literal sense, but I believe that Parker and many other musicians were dead serious when they spoke of telling stories through their music, as demonstrated in the discussion of the composition "Perhaps."

In the first chorus of Ornithology its immediately clear that Bird is a master at shifting the balance of his musical sentences. One example of this is how he sets up a shift in momentum by building expectation with the regularity of the phrases at 0:42 for 4 measures; which is answered at 0:46, where Bird truncates the paraphrase to 2 measures to set up the shifting clave-like phrase at 0:49 (the middle of measure 16 in my example above). This is similar to the technique that Max utilized in the "Ko-Ko" example that I discussed previously. This concept is difficult to explain without showing it in musical form.

I hear the phrase at 0:42 in two distinct sub-sections, antecedent and consequent, in terms of their melodic curves and emphases:

0:42 sub-section 1a (set-up antecedent):

0:44, sub-section 2a ( set-up antecedent consequent):

0:46, sub-section 1b (truncated antecedent):

0:48, sub-section 2b (extended shifting consequent):

clave pattern in above phrase, from the middle of second measure of sub-section 2b (0:49):

The antecedent phrase at 0:42, sub-section 1a, runs continuously into its consequent at sub-section 2a. However, the antecedent phrase at 0:46, sub-section 1b, is interrupted, followed by the extended consequent at sub-section 2b (0:48), in which the rhythmic displacement or shift of emphasis occurs at around 0:49, from the middle of the 3rd measure of sub-section 2b. The phrases at 0:42 (sub-section 1a) and 0:46 (sub-section 1b) are symmetrical in length. The following phrase, which Parker did not play, is what I imagine the consequent at 0:48 (sub-section 2b) could be without the clave-like extension.

But there is even more at work here, and what I suspect is the intuitive reason that the last consequent was extended. The opening phrases of each antecedent are themselves clave-like, in that they contain the same kind of offsetting rhythms (i.e. groups of 3) that are present in clave patterns. These are answered by the extended version of these kinds of rhythms in the consequent of sub-section 2b, at 0:49.

It is this kind of sophisticated rhythmic symmetry in the sentence structure of Parker's music that is often overlooked when analyses of his spontaneous compositions are attempted, but many musicians of this period intuitively grasped it. The structure has an "Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba" form, where the figure at the beginning of these phrases is balanced by the same figure at the end. If you listen to this entire passage as rhythm only, disregarding the pitches, then I think it becomes easier to hear the rhythmic patterns I'm referring to. In an example of one variation of this particular symmetry, the second half of the 3rd chorus (2:01 to 2:08) contains virtually the same antecedent-consequent structure as was played at 0:42, with a response that is balanced in a different way, but that still uses the same clave-like pattern.

[2:01] of "Ornithology"

This approach to balancing rhythmic phrases and the resultant dynamic rhythmic symmetry, are reminiscent of the phrases that tap dancers and drummers use. These devices are constant occurrences in Parker's music, as demonstrated in this song, and Navarro and Powell demonstrate much of the same tendencies. Of course, all of this is occurring so rapidly that there is no such analysis as I am giving here is involved on the part of the musicians. But I do think that these kinds of balances are involved in the feel of the music, and this is what contributes to the music's effect. I believe that the initiated (the musicians who are near Parker's musical level) are the first who are affected, then they transmit the information and influence the musicians just below their level, and so on. The collective impact of these concepts (albeit necessarily in diluted form) eventually gets communicated to the public's ear.

The types of rhythms that Parker plays at 1:05 are similar to things that I've heard drummers from the African Diaspora execute. If you listen to it purely as rhythm, you can imagine a drummer playing exactly the same kind of phrase—in fact, Blakey does play parts of the phrase with Bird, and you can hear Bud stressing the same rhythmic weights, what I call pushing the beat. As with the woman's exclamation at the beginning of his solo, I believe these lightning-fast musical responses were as internalized in Bird's playing as fans' spontaneous responses at sporting events.

At the top of 3rd chorus (1:40), Bird executes one of those tricks that I think he learned from pianist Art Tatum, of turning the form around by starting it 2 beats early. This is not easy for a melodic player to do, as your spontaneous melody has to be strong enough that it suggests the displacement. You can even feel Bird stop to think about what he is about to do before he plays it.

Skipping ahead, after Fats tells his outstanding story and Bud Powell takes an absolutely killin' solo, the two choruses of trading between Parker and Navarro are absolutely hair-raising.

6:09 has one of those crazy cartoon quotes followed by ridiculous cram. Two guitarist friends reminded me that this quote is from the song "Jarabe Tapatío," known in English as the "Mexican Hat Dance." The original form of the melody is:

Fats responds with a similarly shaped answer.

At the top of the second choruses of the horns trading (6:25), Bird plays this modulating tetrachord figure which he subtly changes to match the underlying structure of the song, played in his typically laid-back manner, and the groove is killin':

The antecedent is structured as a Lydian tetrachord, in this case G A B C, with a Bb passing tone added:

However, the consequent contains a Dorian tetrachord, with a B passing tone added:

(Notice that the references to the terms Lydian and Dorian follow the Medieval terminology for these structures, which are based on the top fourth of the Medieval Lydian and Dorian modes, referred to as 'species of the fourth' in Medieval times.)

Both forms of this tetrachord are plentiful in Bird's spontaneous melodies and are among his favorite melodic structures. Even if you did not know the underlying harmonic structure of the song, you could discern the melodic structure by listening to how Bird emphasizes the second pitch from the top of the tetrachord, demonstrating which are the main tones and which are the passing tones. This again shows the importance of rhythm and stress in this music. Also in the consequent, Bird contracts the end of the phrase, again highlighting the structure of the tetrachord. Aurally this subtle change would probably be unnoticed by most listeners, which is the point, as in this case the consequent is really a subtle paraphrase of the antecedent. There is functional symmetry involved here, as technically the beginning of the two phrases contain the same pitches, but the B and Bb change function relative to the two tetrachords. In the first figure (1st measure), B natural is functionally part of the tetrachord and Bb is the passing tone, whereas in the second figure (middle of the 3rd measure) Bb is functionally part of the tetrachord and B natural is the passing tone.

At 6:41 Parker plays another strong clave-like figure, followed by a cram. Finally, I love the spontaneous harmonizing that Bird does on the out head, particularly the melodically symmetrical phase at 7:39, with the Db pickup to the next phrase (well, closer to D-flat than D-natural) being the symmetrical axis of the preceding 10 pitches:

These are just a few examples. There is so much going on in this song that I'll just have to stop talking about it! The main point for me is how much we can learn from these very advanced techniques. So much more is going on than just swinging-however, Bird does that too.

Reviewer: Steve Coleman


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