Charlie Parker: Perhaps (Take 1)


Perhaps (Take 1)


Charlie Parker (alto sax)


Complete Savoy & Dial Studio Sessions (Savoy 17079)

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

Composed by Charlie Parker


Recorded: New York, September 24 1948


Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

This composition is another example of the many linguistic rhythmic devices Parker used in his music that are not much discussed. In my opinion, the composed melody is clearly an explanation with variations. The opening phrase of the melody is an explanation of some kind, followed by but perhaps (going into measure 5), which begins the first alternate explanation. Then perhaps (into measure 7) begins a second alternate explanation. Perhaps (into measure 9) begins the final clarification, then the melody ends with the responses in measures 11 and 12—perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. Therefore we can think of the melodic segments in between the perhaps as some sort of discussion and clarification of a particular situation, lending more evidence to the literal admonishment of the cats to always tell a story with your music. Obviously in this song there is an added onomatopoetic dimension to the melody that allowed me to at least recognize the perhaps musical phrase at an early stage in my career when I knew very little about the structure of music. But this more obvious example also served notice to me that these possibilities existed within this music, and just maybe there also were elements of the spontaneous compositions that exhibited these features.

This was my intuitive reaction to this song when I first heard it in my formative years as I was still learning how to play, and it is still how I understand it when I listen today. But beyond the more obvious example of this composed melody, I feel that the spontaneous part of this composition, indeed of all of Parker's compositions, are also explanations, and that they are all telling stories. And as mentioned before, they contain the same kinds of exclamations, dialog, linguistic phraseology, and common sense structure that is contained in everyday conversation, with the exception that this linguistic structure is based on the sub-culture of the African-American community of that time, what most people would call slang. This is particularly evident in the rhythm of the musical phrases. The way Max answers the melody is definitely conversational. I hear the same kinds of rhythms that I see when watching certain boxers, basketball players, dancers, and the timing of most of the various activities that go on in the hood. However, this same rhythmic sensibility can occur on various levels of sophistication, and with the music of Bird and his cohorts, it occurs on an extremely sophisticated artistic level.

This subject of musical conversation brings up the issue of African-Diapora DNA. Scholar Schwaller de Lubicz made reference to a theory that the ancient Egyptians, at some very early point in their existence, had a language whose structure and utterances consisted of pure modulated tones similar to music, as opposed to the phonetic languages of today. Given that their ancient writing contained no symbols for vowels, this idea may seem far-fetched. However, because the recorded writing of this civilization documents over two millennia, a great deal of change must have occurred within the language.

Many modern linguists believe somewhat the opposite, that the original human languages contained clicks or were predominantly click languages. These linguists use the languages of the Hadza people of Tanzania and Jul'hoan people of Botswana as evidence. However, the evidence of drum languages in the Niger-Congo region of Sub-Saharan Africa tells another story. For example, the drum languages of the Yoruba of Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin; the Ewe of Ghana, Togo and Benin; the Akan of Ghana; and the Dagomba of northern Ghana, still exist today. In the languages of these areas, register tone languages are common, where pitch is used to distinguish words (as opposed to contour, as in Chinese). Since many of these West-African languages are tonal, suprasegmental communication is possible through purely prosodic means (i.e. rhythm, stress and intonation). There is little doubt that emotional prosody (sounds that represent pleasure, surprise, anger, happiness, sadness, etc.) predated the modern concept of languages. If the early ancient Egyptians developed a highly structured form of suprasegmental communication, it is quite possible that de Lubicz' theory is correct. In any case, there is plenty of precedent for the exclusive use of tones as language.

Regarding the sections containing spontaneous composition, of course, many musical devices are involved, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic and formal, all on a very high level. Which is why most students of this music are absorbed in the musical parameters—there is so much there. But I propose that much of what is being accomplished musically can be seen more clearly if we take into account the perspective of the African-Diaspora, rather than have discussions primarily about harmonic structure, etc. Many of the rhythms that Parker uses are not merely related to African music in the linguistic sense that I have outlined above, nor only related to the notion of having a certain kind of swing or groove. Also many of the structural rhythmic tendencies of the Diaspora have been retained within African-American culture.

We can start by looking at the concept of clave in Parker's playing. The phrase at 0:26 of take 1 is precisely the kind of slick musical sentence that Parker was renowned for among his peers. I feel that the emphasis in the phrasing contains rhythmic figures very similar to various clave patterns. This phrase is repeated almost verbatim at 0:55 with the addition of a turn and a slight shift in the clave pattern:

(at 0:26 )


(at 0:55)

Of course, you need to listen to the recording to get a feel for the emphasis, but my point here is that there does not seem to be much discussion of this aspect of Bird's internal sense of rhythmic structure. Recognition of a sense of clave in Parker's playing is a key (pardon my pun) to beginning to investigate his complex rhythmic concepts in greater detail. It would be instructive to listen to Bird's spontaneous compositions only for their rhythmic content without regard for the pitches. Then it would be revealed that many of his phrases contain the same kinds of rhythmic structures found in the phrasing of the master drummers of West Africa, with the exception of the pitch conception. An investigation of the starting and ending points of Parker's phrases reveals a kinship to these Sub-Saharan drum masters.

Take as an example this melodic sentence at 0:38 of take 1 of "Perhaps":

There are several rhythmic shifts of emphasis here that suggest a compressing and lengthening of phrases. Starting on beat 3 of measure 2, the shift in emphasis within the phrase suggests groupings of 6-4-5-3-4 (in quarter note pulses). This concept is similar to the classic mop-mop figure; i.e. 4-3-5-4, and is one of the hallmarks of Bird's spontaneous compositions.

Reviewer: Steve Coleman


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