At the risk of becoming a complete bore on the subject of bebop I thought I’d follow up an earlier post on the joys of jazz with this brilliant performance of yet another Charlie Parker tune, not by the man himself, but by one of his disciples.
I was lucky enough to hear Sonny Stitt live a number of times and he was always brilliant; he died in 1982. He was criticised by some jazz buffs between numbers during one gig I was at with the words “You’re just playing like Charlie Parker!”, to which he replied by handing his alto saxophone to the twit in the audience and saying “Here then. YOU play like Charlie Parker.”
Anyway, in the late 1950s (after Charlie Parker had died) Sonny Stitt sat in as on alto saxophone with the Oscar Peterson trio of which Ray Brown (bass) and Ed Thigpen (drums) were the other two members. They made a classic album for the Verve label which features a number of Charlie Parker numbers. Oscar Peterson isn’t my absolute favourite jazz pianist but it has to be said that he and his sidemen build up a colossal head of steam on these records, especially the one I’ve picked which is called Au Privave.
I tried for ages to unravel this intricate little tune. It’s basically a twelve-bar blues, but it is built on much more complicated chords than the usual blues cycle. In its simplest form, the blues involves only three chords, the same three that most rock-and-roll tunes are built on. The foundation is a “tonic” chord (T) based on the root note of whatever key it’s played in, often a basic triad consisting of the first, third and five notes of a major scale starting on that note or including the dominant 7th. The next chord is the subdominant chord (S), shifting things up by a perfect fourth relative to the tonic, and then finally we have the dominant (D) which brings us up by a fifth from the original root note.
The basic twelve-bar blues has one chord per bar. The first four bars are accompanied by the tonic, then the subdominant S takes over for two bars followed by a return to the tonic for another two. The last four bars introduce the dominant (but only for one bar), followed by S for one and then back down to the root for the final two.
In a standard blues in F the sequence would thus be
| F| F| F |F | B♭| B♭| F| F | C| B♭| F| F|,
or possibly with F7 etc. The slow and relatively simple progression of chords gives these blues a rather statuesque form: the soloist has to be really good to keep the thing going without getting bogged down. When played by a master even the simplest blues can be immensely powerful, but they can also be very dull when played not so well. It may be simple, but it certainly isn’t easy.
Au Privave is in F but has considerably more complicated changes than the bog-standard F blues. Parker inserted several intermediate chords to keep the harmonies moving and dispensed with some of the conventional progressions. There are also more chords, usually two per bar rather than just one. The sequence here looks more like
| F| Gm7C7| F |Cm7F7| B♭| B♭| F7Gm7| Am7D7 | Gm7| C| FD7| G7C7|,
although I’m not sure I got them right as it tends to be played very fast! It’s a lot more to remember, but it’s also a much more dynamic setting to improvise in which is what people like Charlie Parker wanted to create. Instead of moving quasi-statically through perfect intervals each chorus, you run helter-skelter through a constantly shifting harmonic environment. Notice also that there’s no comfortable return to the tonic at measure 12, even. The appearance of a C7 chord here is called a turnaround. Complicated? Yes, I suppose it is. But whenever I hear it played by Sonny Stitt it’s always just four minutes of sheer exhilaration.
Oh, and there’s another thing. Listen to the chorus that starts about 2:58. Did he really play all twelve bars without breathing?