Jun 19, 2011

Review: "The Best of Charlie Parker," by Mark Voelpel

I’m always interested in a good Charlie Parker book; I hadn’t seen this one until recently, though it was published in 2003. The full title is "The Best of Charlie Parker: A Step-By-Step Breakdown of the Styles and Techniques of a Jazz Legend." It’s part of the Hal Leonard “Signature Licks” series. The advertising blurb promises “in-depth analysis of twelve classics.” The book is an educational tool aimed at music students, particularly sax players, who want to better understand what Parker's style was all about.

This 48-page book includes an eight-page introductory essay on “Charlie Parker’s Music,” which begins with some biographical information regarding the development of Parker’s improvisational/compositional style. The essay goes on to list some of the characteristic melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic devices that contribute to that style. The rest of the book consists of twelve solo transcriptions, each preceded by a short introduction offering comments on points of interest in the solo.

This is a product worth checking out, but it is not without its flaws. 

The essay on Parker’s stylistic devices is pretty good. Voelpel discusses about seven devices in some detail, with musical examples: tritone substitution, chord extensions, a favorite triplet arpeggio figure, a chromatic triplet figure, “bebop scales,” chromatic approach notes, and “upper neighbor/lower neighbor” approach tones. These are indeed factors in Parker’s style, and this is a good presentation. However, if you are looking for a more complete and in-depth examination of the components of Bird’s style, I‘d refer you to Yardbird Suite, by Lawrence Koch, an excellent biography that includes a 32-page appendix in which Koch discusses something like 17 devices or aspects of Parker’s style in detail (I’ll post a review of that book in the near future).

Any published transcriptions of Parker solos will inevitably be compared to the Charlie Parker Omnibook by Jamey Aebersold and Ken Slone, a terrific collection that came out in 1978 (I’ve used it in teaching for years). All but two of the solos that Voelpel has chosen are covered in the Omnibook as well. Voelpel has improved upon the Omnibook in quite a few spots, but to my ear, there are still occasional missed notes and rhythms in the transcriptions. Some errors seem to be due to typos. Voelpel published a similar book for guitar two years earlier (which I haven’t read). Perhaps this book, directed at sax players, just wasn’t adequately proofed by a sax player.

The short written introductions to each transcription don’t really deliver the ”in-depth analysis of twelve classics” promised by the publisher’s advertising blurb. For example, the introduction for “Billie’s Bounce” comments on just nine spots in the 61-measure solo (I’ll post my own take on this solo before too long). Other introductions contain some biographical or discographical info, but little or no musical analysis.

A CD is included, with the transcriptions played by alto sax, piano, bass, and drums. On the one hand, some students might find it helpful to hear these versions, insofar as they are played with better sound quality than the original Parker issues, and at a slower tempo. The sax part is recorded on only the right side of the stereo, so that the tracks can be used as play-alongs.

On the other hand, something is lost in translation. The best reference for a Parker solo is - by definition - Bird’s original recording, with all its inflections, accents, timing, unquantifiable thinking and emotion, and of course, “correct” notes. The versions on the CD are the result of several steps of processing: first from Parker to the recording, then to the ear of the transcriber, then to paper, then visually from paper to performer, and finally from performer to the new recording. Even considering just the notes, errors accumulate along the way. The character of the music changes too, and the end product is not exactly a Charlie Parker solo. But we have to be understanding; perhaps the rights to the original recordings were not obtainable.

I may have been a bit critical here, but I’m glad that Voelpel put this book together, and that Hal Leonard published it. It’s a contribution that is worth checking out. For those who would like to dig deeper into the elements of Bird’s style, I’d suggest the Koch book, and also Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, by Carl Woideck. You might also have a look at these websites:



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