A Charlie Parker Lick Around the Cycle of Fifths

Okay, campers, listen up: Uncle Bob says it’s time again for another great sax lick. So gather round the campfire with your saxophones, and grease your fingers to keep them from igniting, because this lick comes to you from the immortal Bird. That’s right, Charlie Parker, the indisputable emperor of the alto sax–not merely a luminary of jazz, but one of its incendiaries. It pays to light your tinder with Bird’s flame, and this exercise will help you to do so. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge it to readable size.

bird_lick_cycle_of_fifthsThe lick comes from the first bridge section of Parker’s solo on “Thriving from a Riff,” which is one of the myriad contrafacts based on the changes to “I Got Rhythm” that were written back in the bebop era. An alternate and perhaps better-known name for this particular tune is “Anthropology.” Same head, same changes, just a different title.

While a number of variations exist on the chord changes to the Rhythm bridge section, the basic progression, and arguably the most frequently used, is four dominant seventh chords moving around the circle of fifths in two-bar increments. Since the cycle of dominants is the foundation for the Rhythm bridge, extending a lick written over the bridge so that it covers all twelve keys is a great way to develop fluency in every key. That’s the premise of the exercise on this page.

Note that I’ve done only half your work for you. Once you’ve mastered the written material, you’ll need to transpose the lick so that it starts on E7 instead of B7, and work your way through the remaining transpositions.

Parker played Rhythm changes in a number of keys, but the standard key of concert Bb is the one he used most often, and it’s the one that “Thriving from a Riff” was written in. It puts the Eb alto sax in the key of G, with B7 being the first chord of the bridge section. For Bb instruments such as tenor sax, soprano sax, and trumpet, the first chord will be E7. But for purposes of practicing the cycle of fifths, it really doesn’t matter which chord you start with–it’s all good, and it’ll all take you around the complete cycle through all twelve keys, which is the purpose of this exercise.

It’s de rigeur these days to offer analyses of transcribed solos that are so exacting they could split the hairs on a fly’s behind. I admire the insight and effort that go into such exhaustive examinations of an artist’s work, but I frankly find them a bit overwhelming. I do, however, appreciate having points of particular interest spotlighted, and I will offer a few such highlights here.

The opening figure, an arpeggio descending from the thirteenth of the chord, superimposes an A+(#7) over the B7. Bird couldn’t have more effectively avoided playing the basic triad tones. Note his use of the flatted fifth, creating a Lydian sonority. The parent scale at this point is a B Lydian dominant scale, but it’s only a temporary application. In the following bar, Parker clearly defines the B7 and his approach becomes purely diatonic up to bar 4, where he injects a touch of chromaticism in the form of a passing tone. Look closely and you’ll see a hidden chromatic line descending from the note D in bar 3 through C# and B# in bar four and landing on the note B. The final two notes, B and D, are chord tones, the fifth and flat seventh of the E7.

So much for the fancy analytical stuff. If it helps you, fantastic; if it just loses you, don’t worry about it. The main thing is for you to get the exercise drilled into your fingers and your ears. In other words, make a point of memorizing it. Doing so won’t make another Charlie Parker out of you, but it will make you a better player.

That’s the goal, right, campers? You bet it is. Uncle Bob has spoken. Now get your little butts back to your cabins–you’ve got some practicing to do.

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