May 12, 2013

Review: "Charlie Parker: His Music and Life," by Carl Woideck

Carl Woideck’s Charlie Parker: His Music and Life has long been one of my two favorite Parker books, along with Lawrence Koch’s Yardbird Suite (previously reviewed here). In different ways, each book combines biography with in-depth musical analysis.

Woideck’s book begins with a concise “Biographical Sketch,” and follows with an analysis of Parker’s stylistic development, marked off into chapters covering 1940-43, 1944-46, 1947-49, and 1950-55. Appendices include a selected discography, and four solo transcriptions.

The 48-page biography chapter is well-researched, describing both Parker’s musical and non-musical life. Woideck addresses some Bird myths - as the book jacket reads, “setting the record straight where possible.” Parker’s drug use, not an irrelevant factor in both his musical and non-musical life, is dealt with realistically. Although this section is nicely done, I get the feeling that for Woideck, it was a sort of obligatory part of the book, and he would just as soon get on with the analysis. As he writes at the end of the bio, “That leaves us with the music, which is as it should be.”

The musical chapters comprise the real subject of this book. The Koch book covers a lot of biographical and discographical detail, with some analysis along the way, and a 32-page appendix that digs into the technical details of Parker’s music. Woideck, while also presenting his material chronologically, deals primarily with Parker’s style, rather than spending time on the minutae of Bird’s performances and recording history. The two books complement each other nicely.

Some of the particular angles, or points made, in Woideck’s book:

1) Parker was a great student of the jazz of his day. Notably, he studied Lester Young's recorded solos.

2) Parker had a unique ability to integrate advanced (for his era) theory concepts into his playing in an organic, natural way. Theory immediately became practice.

3) In the 1950s, Parker seems to have had difficulty in expanding his musical frontiers; in this period his performances seem “formulaic.” He aspired to expand his knowledge of the European classical tradition, but was not able to realize this ambition.

Woideck makes interesting, often astute, observations throughout the book. For example:

1) Parker has been quoted as saying he was “impressed by Bach’s patterns.” Woideck points out the similarity of some of Parker’s phrases to Bach’s solo pieces. I have to agree. Play through some of Bach's cello suites, and see what you think.

2) Woideck cites a pattern that Parker plays in a 1952 recording of “Rocker,” that seems to have been borrowed from Nicholas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns. Slonimsky’s book became famous among jazz musicians later, in the 1960s, when John Coltrane used some of its patterns as source material for solos. Woideck finds only this one example from Parker, but his early use is significant.

3) It’s interesting to speculate on how much of Parker’s improvisations may have been prepared in advance. Woideck traces the development of Parker’s approach to the bridge of “Cherokee” over a period of years. Parker’s treatment of the bridge's II V sequences seems to have started as “Tea for Two” quotes, over time becoming increasingly embellished and varied, as a sort of “work-in-progress,” ultimately becoming a Parker trademark. Woideck also cites the 1946 recording session that produced “Night in Tunisia”; Parker used “nearly identical” solo breaks on all three takes (this is the excerpt issued as the “Famous Alto Break”). Of course, prepared or not, it’s still stunning, and advanced for that era.

I do think that when Woideck repeatedly states that Parker’s creativity ebbed in the 1950s, he may be overstating the point a little. He asserts that Bird settled into a “lick-based,” “formulaic” approach. As I see it, Parker’s approach had always been “lick-based.” It was part of his style, and his genius, that he could vary the licks, and their rhythmic placement, in countless ways. Also, I think it’s undeniable that Bird produced some transcendent work in the 1950s. If there is some validity in Woideck’s assertion, it is perhaps largely a reflection of the recording situations that Ross Russell placed Parker in, and of the fact that Parker often toured as a “single,” without his own quartet as a support group.

In an appendix, Woideck presents four transcribed solos: “Honey and Body” (a medley of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul”), “Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Parker’s Mood,” and “Just Friends.” It’s a great selection of solos, and the transcriptions are nicely done. Unfortunately for alto players, the solos are shown in concert key, not transposed for Eb instruments. This will work for pianists and guitarists, but sax players will miss seeing how the notes lie on the instrument with which the solos were created. I’m sure that this was a difficult judgement call by the author.

All in all, a fine piece of scholarship, and a must for all ornithologists.

May 1, 2013

Kenny Dorham, "Blue Bossa," Moacyr Silva, and "Sugestivo"

A few years ago, playing through a series of Brazilian fakebooks by Mario Mascarenas, I noticed this choro, "Sugestivo," by Moacyr Silva. It begins with a phrase so close to Kenny Dorham's Blue Bossa (beloved of jazz educators) that it just can't be a coincidence. The lead sheet in the Mascarenhas book shows the copyright date as 1958, though a comment on the Youtube page (a version since taken down) states that the tune was actually first recorded in 1952.  Dorham visited Rio in 1961. "Blue Bossa" was first recorded on Joe Henderson's album Page One in 1963.

Here's a link to Amazon for Vol. 1 of the Mascarenhas fakebooks; several other volumes are available.

This recording is from 1958: