Sep 22, 2019

Review: Charlie Parker Omnibook, Volume 2

Jazz education has come a long way in the last 50 years. With so many theory methods, patterns books, playalongs, fakebooks, and solo transcriptions now available, it may be hard to imagine that there was a time when we had very few of these. The recently-published Charlie Parker Omnibook Volume 2, with 60 solo transcriptions, is a valuable addition to our educational resources. Big thanks are due to the transcriber, Chris Stewart.

Some personal history: When I was in 7th grade in the 1960s, playing tenor in the school jazz band and just beginning to listen to recordings by the great players, I discovered that my local public library had a record listening station, and a number of Charlie Parker's Savoy and Verve recordings. I used to do my homework with the headphones on, and have been a fan ever since.

In college in Portland, Oregon, when I was finally getting serious about music, one of the few sources for transcriptions was old Downbeat magazines. There was an archive of back issues at the public library. I was thrilled to find transcriptions of Parker's "Now's the Time" solo and Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul." I learned a lot from those two solos alone.

A digression: When I was in the library digging through old issues of Downbeat, I got into a conversation with another student who I met there. He told me a story about his dad, who had been a trombone player in New York in the 1940s. One day his dad decided to go sit in at an open jam session. When he got there, Charlie Parker was on stage, with some other heavy players. Dad was understandably intimidated. He took his trombone out into the hallway, and started playing along softly, facing the wall. As he was playing, someone grabbed him by the collar and marched him onstage. The guy who grabbed him was Parker.

Anyway, when the first ("Volume 1") Charlie Parker Omnibook came out in 1978, it was a great gift to jazz education. I used the transcriptions for sightreading and for analysis, and have used the book in teaching ever since, with any jazz-oriented student who is ready for it.

With most students whose reading and theory skills are sufficient, the first solos we study are 5 blues tunes, all in concert F - Now's the Time (two takes), Au Privave (two takes), and Billie's Bounce. First we play the transcription together, and practice the rough spots (listening to the original recording helps a lot). Then I go through the solo measure by measure, noting the devices that Parker uses in playing a blues. As we go through these 5 solos, many of the same devices occur repeatedly. As I see it, here are some of the benefits of this approach:

1) Blues is at the heart of jazz. Students need to understand blues instinctively, intellectually, and emotionally. Parker was a brilliant blues player. Just being exposed to his music is important.
2) The student will hopefully pick up something of his thought process, consciously or unconsciously (that's a good reason to study Bach and Mozart, too).
3) The solos are pretty technical in spots, and are great reading practice.
4) Analysis will help students' understanding of music theory in general.
5) They will hopefully pick up on some of the devices that make a blues solo work.

(This post has an analysis of Billie's Bounce, as I might approach it at a lesson.)

As fond as I am of the old Volume 1 Omnibook, it has some imperfections. The notation is sometimes not exactly "proper" (e.g., use of accidentals). The chord symbols sometimes seem to be intended to reflect Parker's apparent thought process (e.g., chord substitutions), but at other times seem to be intended to reflect either what the band is playing, or what the changes are "supposed" to be. In other words, the reasoning for the chord symbols seems to be inconsistent. The transcriptions, by Ken Slone and Jamey Aebersold, are very good, but there are a few wrong notes and rhythms here and there, if you are picky.

Bb, C, and bass clef versions of the original Omnibook are available, but the fingerings and pitches of Parker's solo lines are native to the alto sax. When transposed for Bb instruments, the licks do not sit as well on the horn. Also, range can be a problem; some notes or phrases need to be moved up or down by an octave in order to fit in the normal range of the sax. This can interfere with the original flow of the phrases. The Bb book works better for clarinet than for tenor, as the clarinet has a wider range. Sometimes I think tenor players would be better off using the Eb book, though of course that puts the songs in a different key than the one in the original recording. This issue applies to volume 2 as well.

As Chris Stewart notes in his preface to Volume 2, the original Omnibook does not show articulations; also, the choices of tunes are heavy on blues and "rhythm changes" tunes. The lack of articulations doesn't really bother me, and the tune choice is not really a flaw; it's just the nature of the book.

When the publication of Volume 2 was announced a few months ago, I ordered a copy right away. I've played through all the tunes in the book (but of course not at the original tempos).

Here are some features that I noted in the Volume 2 Omnibook:

1) As mentioned, the song choices are not so heavy on blues and rhythm changes, but include more standards. That's a welcome addition.
2) Volume 2 includes articulations (Volume 1 does not) - in fact, Stewart has included pretty much every articulation that he could. I've only "proofed" a couple of the volume 2 tunes for articulations. As nearly as I can tell, Stewart is mostly right, though in a few places the indicated articulations may be arguable. In fairness, he probably has better sound equipment than I do, and obviously has a great ear. I do find that the articulations tend to clutter the visual aspect of the transcription. The inclusion of articulations is OK with me; it's just a choice he made in an effort to be more accurate. As the saying goes, it's a feature, not a bug.
3) Rules of "proper" notation are followed more consistently than was the case in Volume 1.
4) Growls are shown!
5) Stewart has indicated wherever he thinks Parker is using a side D fingering for 4th line D. If he's right, Parker uses it quite a bit. I think some of these indications may be arguable. Also, unless I overlooked it, I don't see any indications that he used side C for 3rd space C or for C above the staff (I know Volume 1 pretty well, and have noticed some spots where Parker probably used side C, though it's not indicated in that book).
6) Chord changes seem to be chosen much as they were in Volume 1. That is, it is not always clear whether they are intended to reflect what Parker was playing, or what the pianist is playing.
7) One factual goof: The tune listed as "They Didn't Believe Me" (Jerome Kern) is not that song, but rather "Irresistible You" (Gene DePaul), as per Lawrence Koch's Parker biography, Yardbird Suite (pp. 262-3).

Steve Neff has posted an excellent review of Volume 2, worth checking out. He also has posted youtube links to all the songs in the new Omnibook.

I'm truly grateful to Chris Stewart for putting together this great product! If you enjoyed the old Omnibook as I have, you'll find many more years of enjoyment in the new Omnibook Volume 2.

If you would like to order either the original Omnibook or the new Volume 2, links are below for the Eb editions. If you order through these links, this website will receive a small cut (thanks!).

Charlie Parker Omnibook Volume 2:

Charlie Parker Omnibook Volume 1:

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