The Summer Youth Music School (SYMS) at the University of New Hampshire runs each summer. I attended it a couple years back in High School. The second year, I prepared a piece called Au Privave (No. 1) from the Bird Omnibook. This is a transcription of solo by Charlie Parker.
Charlie Parker played on alto, but I played tenor sax, and prepared the version from the B flat book, which was transposed down a fifth. It turns out that this radically alters the fingerings. Parker played insanely fast, and in doing so, he naturally sought out the fingerings that flowed smoothly and naturally on the Saxophone. And then he played them at superhuman speed. It turns out that transposing it up a fifth radically changes some of the fingerings, and also puts many of the notes out of the range of the Saxophone
I bombed the audition.
Charlie Parker was endlessly inventive as an improvisor, but he had certain riffs that he would use and reuse in his solos. in the middle of Au Privave, there is a 16th note run over several measures that has a unique, up, intense, happy, driven sound. I found it again in his solo on the song The Bird, and have heard it in many others. Why does this riff work? Here is an analysis.
Here is the riff from Au Privave as played on the original Eb alto Saxophone:
And here is how it sounds
Lets start with the chords. The heart of this is the ii V7 progression from E minor to A7. The lead in is the # minor to B7 which is a fourth away from the E- which is a descending backwards ii V7, a pattern Bird used in many of his tunes. Instead of landing on a Dmaj7 at the end, he used a D7, which provides less resolution, and allows him to go in different directions afterward.
the E Minor chord is almost always played with the seventh: E G A D. If this is played as the ii chord of a scale, the scale would be the D Major Scale, with F# and C#. Since he lands on D7, the C# is…optional?..fungible? An E natural minor scale, a sound familiar to our ears, would only have the F# in it, so again, Bird has a lot of flexibility here. But the A7 following has the C# as the third, which is pretty much the target tone for melody lines.
The lead in is E F# G B over a B7. E is the 4th of B. If he were playing a major chord, this would be an avoid note. But he’s not. He is anticipating the upcoming E- chord. When the pianist (Bud Powell?) finally plays the chord, Bird has already set up your expectation that this is an E-. The notes are Root, 2nd (or 9th), 3rd, fifth. Very much scale tones.
He lands on the D as the measure starts, formally entering the harmonic state of the E minor chord. This is the 7th, a chord tone. It is also getting in to the top range of the Saxophone. This note is played with a Palm key in the left hand.
The Palm Keys shown above have been altered to make them easier to reach. This should give a sense that they are not 100% easy to play, when compared with the more linearity of the white colored keys played with the finger tips. However, bumping a single palm key note is a pretty quick flex of the plam; you hit it with the bump at the base of the index finger by making the palm slightly convex.
This is the highest note of the run; from here, Bird is working down the saxophone. As such, there is a slight lessening of the tension as it winds down. The quick run up built the tension that is now releasing. But the run is a whirlwind of 16th notes, and has incredible energy all the way through.
After hitting the High D he uses a chromatic turnaround, B C C# and then mirrors in the next set of 16th notes A A# B A natural. Where the first resolves up, the second resolves down, but there is a symetry in the two sequences. He makes use of that ambiguity of the C/C# I mentioned before, although as a passing chromatic tone, pretty much any note is acceptable. Only the D really needs to be on a chord tone to maintain the effect of the chord. Still, he is within the E minor/E dorian set of notes through out.
The A sharp in the next sequence is not from the E dorian mode. While Jamie Abersold noted it as an A#, it might as well be a Bb; this is a note from outside the scale. If we were in D dorian (our target) this note would be the #5; I’ve written about this note in an earlier article. In E, it is the tritone; the Blues note and Bird’s music is built on the Blues.
One thing I never was sure was how Bird would have fingered this run. I tend to overplay the Biss key for B flat. However, it is possible he used the side B flat keys. This article shows the difference. Both are slightly tricky finger transitions, and it really just mattered which Parker had drilled more. He was more than capable of playing either. I suspect he used the side key.
The next four notes can be seen as a continuation of the downward run started in the previous four: G F# E D. The G F# E sequence is the reversal of the start of the run, and it sounds familiar. This sequence is solidly on chord tones for the Down beat and really for all tones, if we view the F# as the ninth. From a fingering perspective, this is about as easy as it comes. From B down to D is a linear closing of the fingers; since a Sax player rarely uses the pinky (G# and some low notes) going from B to G is landing on the most common position for the left hand. F# to E is middle finger, index finger, not quite in sequence, but more like a staggered closing, and the D comes next, ending in the second most common hand configuration for the right.
This jumps to the C#. done by opening all the fingers. Again, a very quick movement. We have an upward building arpeggio: C# E G B. Again, very much in the E minor chord. The G at the end is a tone that is common between the E minor and the following A7, and it lands on the “downbeat.” I put this in quotes because the speed with which this passes does not have a downbeat, but it would IF the sequence was in eighth notes. He uses the B as the turnaround. This is the fifth of the E minor chord, and the Ninth of the A7, and is a pretty strong note as well. The B at the end is the second peak of the run, and everything after this is lower.
If we look at a Circle of Fifths, we can analyze the relative resolution/tension of a note by how far it is from the root. Starting with A, the first jump is to the fifth, or E. The third is two steps beyond there. But the Ninth, the B is only one step beyond the E. It is the Fifth of the Fifth. As such, it makes a very strong addition to the four chord voicing of the A7. It is also fairly close to the C# that makes up the Third. The distances on this circle also emphasize the reason why the tritone is so dissonant: is is opposite side from the root.
This is a rule of thumb, and not a hard and fast rule; the harmonics are much more complex than accounted for by this simple rule.
The second half of the run starts on the root of the A7 and generally works downward. The second note, F#, is the sixth, which is used as a passing tone, but is very stable; the sixth is often used in place of a Major seventh chord. It also has an interesting property; the same set of notes that make a Sisth chord, when rearranged, make a minor chord off the Sixth. This is the second chord in “Rhythm Changes” C Am Dm G7. This it is somewhat ambiguous, but it does serve to emphasize the shift from the E minor to the A7.
The Triplet, from 7th to root and back, is flick of the ring finger on the left hand, and is fairly natural and easy to play; Bird’s playing is filled with such trills. It also emphasizes the A Dominant seventh chord.
The next four notes are a a series of four downward jumps of an arpegiatted G Maj 7th chord. They are the four extension notes of the A 7th chord, going from the Sixth, to the fourth, to the ninth and finally the seventh. It covers a good deal of ground compared to the portions of the run that work up and down sequential scale tones or chromatic passing tones. It Move from the middle to lower voices of the Alto, which also has connotations for the timbre involved. The G is the lowest note hit thus far, and sets up an anticipation of a resolution, but by staying on the 7th, maintains tension.
Bird is not done yet; he jumps up to the E a sixth above the G he just played. This is the biggest jump of the run. Fingering wise, it is very easy to play; lift one finger and use your thumb to engage the octave key. It is central enough in the middle range of the sax that no adjustment of the embouchure is required for intonation. But it provides an even larger degree of contour than the downward arpeggio. It also give Bird the space to move downward again; he has half of the range of the Saxophone to work with.
He has half to work with upward as well, nd he rises past the E to the F natural. This is the first time he has played this not in the run, it is well outside the A7th scale and it has a pretty solid emotional impact. It is the #5, I referred to in the earlier article. It is not, however, the extra note that we expect in the mixolydian mode; that would be the Major 7th, or the G#. Still, it is a very common turnaround note to add, even in a Dominant seventh setting like this, and fits in as a passing tone. He jumps down a fourth to the c natural, also outside the A7th scale, and probably the most contrasting color note he uses; The #9 or minor third can also be viewed as a really flat Major Third, and makes sense best as a Blues note somewhere in between. Again, Bird shows his grounding in the blues. Then he lands on the Root.
The last quartet of the measure starts on the b9. Again, this is outside the scale. This is one of the more common of the outside tones Bird used. Viewed in the context of the upcoming D chord, it can be viewed as the #5. Bird is prepping us again for the following chord. The last three notes are the ninth, seventh, and fifth, before landing on the Root of the D in the last measure.
Bird tends to turn around on sevenths. If we look at the highest notes of the contour of the run we have the seventh note for the E chord, the fifth note of the E chord and the Root of the the A chord. The lowest notes are the seventh of the A chord and the seventh of the (following) D chord. This reflect also the largest changes in direction of the line. The notable exception is the B at the end of the second measure, where he overshoots the A, but then he emphasizes the A by playing it twice in the next quartet.
The variation he uses in The Bird is fairly similar. He starts in the middle of the A7 measure, starting with a A and hitting a couple different lead in notes (D# and E) that are more in keeping with the A7 chord. Then we follow the same sequence of notes as the Au Privave version. Up to the last three notes. The Bird version song lands on a D minor chord around where he was transitioning to the Second half of the riff and the A7 chord in the A7 chord in the Au Privave version. He transition with the Bb and A as eighth notes, half the speed of the 16th notes he’s been playing and a significant down shift in intensity before landing on the eighth note A tied to the quarter note next measure. Considering the speed he was playing before, the tied quarter is a significant amount of time, and indicates the end of this portion of the phrase.
Bird gives a significant amount of space prior to launching into the run in both songs He gives four beats prior to playing it in Au Privave. He gives 4 and 1/2 beats prior in The Bird. This is the longest pause in both songs. No rests are quite this long in Au Privave. He has another pause as long in The Bird but none longer. After the run, with two different finishes, he gives a good amount of space as well; two beats in Au Privave and three and a half beats in The Bird. He places it at the halfway mark in the Au Privave solo and just past halfway in the (first) solo in The Bird. This space and placement gives more emphasis to the phrase, elevating it to the highest energy phrase in the solo.
Bird packed a lot into a phrase that passes in such a short amount of time. He made uses of natural fingerings of the Alto, chord and scale tones, and contour to build a phrase of significant excitement and intensity. I’ve since worked through Au Privave on the alto and baritone saxophones. Even with the slower reaction time of the Baritone, the natural fingerings the Bird played flow so much more easily than the transposed version I battled back in high school. The song and solo makes much more sense in the original key. The Bird has recently become on of my favorite solos to work through on baritone. This phrase, common to both, is a great example of Bird’s genius.