In today’s free online music lesson, we will be analysing Charlie Parker’s jazz standard “Blues For Alice” – focusing particularly on Parker’s note choices in the head and the relationship they have with the chords. I feel that any musician can learn a lot about music theory from analysing jazz standards, and with “Blues For Alice” being one of my favourite jazz tunes of all time, I thought it would be useful to understand how Parker navigates the chord progression and look at some of the concepts he has chosen.
Today’s lesson is geared towards the more advanced musician, but that’s not to say someone of an intermediate level couldn’t get something out of this article. It’s a fascinating insight into how a soloist can approach harmony, and deliver a truly memorable melody by predominantly using chord tones. Whether you’re a guitarist, saxophonist, bassist, pianist or trumpet player, I feel that this tune is definitely worth studying.
Charlie Parker, nicknamed “Yardbird” or, more commonly, “Bird” was a saxophonist who lived from 1920 until his death at the age of 34 in 1955. Considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Parker was a highly influential figure in the jazz subgenre of “bebop”, which was characterised by its fast tempos and complex harmonic structure. Parker was a virtuoso player and has influenced many legendary saxophonists, such as John Coltrane and Michael Brecker.
“Blues For Alice” – Harmonic Analysis
“Blues For Alice” is, as the title implies, primarily a 12 bar blues progression, but it has be reharmonised, or, to put it simply; Charlie Parker has messed with the standard I IV V blues progression to give himself more options. This form of jazz blues is commonly known as “Bird Changes” or “Bird Blues” after Parker’s popular nickname.
“Blues For Alice” is in the key of F Major. A standard 12 bar blues progression in this key would look like this:
Here is what a typical jazz blues would look like in the same key:
Note the differences between a jazz blues and a normal blues. There is an early move to chord IV in bar 2, a II V in the key of G in bar 8, a II V in the key of F in bars 9 & 10 before a typical jazz turnaround in bars 11 & 12.
Here is Charlie Parker’s take on the jazz blues above:
“Blues For Alice” starts on the tonic chord, F6 (the sixth is added for harmonic interest) before it begins to make heavy use of the II V I chord progression in various different keys. Parker wants to create a strong V-I resolution to the Bb7 chord in bar 5, and to achieve this he back-cycles a number of II V I progressions to set this move up. There is a minor II V in the key of D in the 2nd bar, which is followed by a II V in the key of C in bar 3, which sets up the II V in the key of Bb perfectly in bar IV.
After bar 5, we have a series of non resolving II V chord progressions, descending by a semitone each time. To analyse that more closely, we have a II V in the key of Ab in bar 6, a II V in the key of G in bar 7, followed by a II V in the key of Gb in bar 8. Bar 8 features a Db7 chord, itself a tritone away from the next chord of G-7 in bar 9, which is the II of the V chord in bar 10, the C7, meaning we have returned to our tonic key of F major. The last two bars of “Blues For Alice” remain in the key of F major, and feature a classic III VI II V jazz turnaround to take us back to the first bar (C7 being the V chord of F major.)
Analysis Of The Melody
“Blues For Alice” clocks in at a fast pace of 165 BPM, meaning that the chords fly by very quickly, particularly in the bars when two are featured. This means that, as a soloist, there is limited time to outline the changes, and often musicians such as Charlie Parker were restricted to just 4 quavers over each chord. However, as we are about to find out, “Bird” really makes every note count!
Below is a transcription of the main melody for “Blues For Alice.”
Because I’m a guitarist, I have also include a tab of this tune below, using the positions I choose to play the melody. You may choose to modify this to your own tastes to suit your own chosen fingerings. Keep in mind that I have also transposed Parker’s melody down an octave to suit jazz guitar:
Looking at the first bar, we begin with the F6 chord, which contains the notes F, A, C & D. Parker elects to start out with the notes F, C & A, which is an F major arpeggio, perfectly outlining the chord underneath by using the root, major 3rd and the 5th. He then follows with the notes E, C & A, which is an A minor arpeggio, although with the F chord underneath, he is actually implying Fmaj7 (F, A, C & E)
Bar 2 starts with an E-7b5 chord, also known as E half diminished, which contains the notes E, G, Bb & D. Over this chord, Parker plays the notes D (b7th) E (root) B (the natural 5th) and D (b7th), implying more of an E minor 7 feel with the B natural, rather than the b5 present in the chord. This helps to create tension, which is further enhanced by the presence of the A7b9 chord in the same bar. A7b9 contains the notes A, C#, E, G & Bb, which Bird outlines perfectly by playing C# (a semitone lower than the final note he plays over the E-7b5, D, which is great voice leading) followed by the notes Bb (the b9) G (the b7th) and A (the root.)
In bar 3, the A is actually tied across from the previous bar, which perfectly anticipates the Dm7 chord by becoming the 5th, since Dm7 contains the notes D, F, A & C. Bird then follows this up by playing the 3rd (F) and then the root (D) further outlining the underlying chord. The next chord is G7, containing the notes G, B, D & F. Parker starts off on the root (G) before moving up to the 9th (A) which adds some real harmonic interest, before going for the b7th (F) and finally the 6th (E) which voice leads down a semitone into the next bar.
That 6th may seem like an unusual note choice over the G7, but Bird knows exactly what he’s doing. He sets up perfectly to hit the Eb over the Cm7, which is the minor 3rd. Cm7 contains the notes C, Eb, G & Bb, and Parker completes the phrase by following up with the notes G (the 5th) Bb (the b7th) D (the 9th) and Db (the b9.) The 9th and the b9 are very interesting notes to hit over this chord, with the b9 in particular adding an unresolved tension which really creates harmonic interest. This could also be seen as an Ebmaj7 arpeggio (Eb, G, B, D) superimposed over a Cm7, and moving down to the b7th (D) The second half of the bar features an F7 chord, which contains the notes F, A, C, and Eb. Parker chooses to keep it fairly harmonically straightforward at this point, electing to play F (the root) followed by another F, then a G (the 2nd, or 9th) and finally another F.
Bar 5 features a Bb7 chord for the whole length. Bb7 contains the notes Bb, D, F & Ab, with Bird electing to start the line on a C, which is the 9th of the chord. This concept of targeting 9ths, even when they are not present in the underlying chord, can be applied to your own playing to great effect. Parker then plays the notes Bb (the root) F (the 3rd) Ab (the b7th) and another Bb an octave lower, perfectly outlining the chord but choosing not to play it as a straight arpeggio. He then finishes the bar on a G, but this is more of a set up for the next bar.
Parker’s approach to the II V in bar 6 is interesting, with a line that starts on the Bbm7 chord (consisting of the notes Bb, Db, F & Ab) in which he plays the notes Eb (the 4th) Db (the minor 3rd) before doing a nice chromatic climb up from the Bb (the root) to the B (the b9) and then a C, which becomes the 6th of the Eb7 chord. Eb7 contains the notes Eb, G, Bb and Db, and Bird completes this bar by going up in whole steps from F (the 9th) to G (the minor 3rd) and then A (the #11, or diminished 5th) which perfectly anticipates the Am7 chord in the next bar, as it is the chord’s root note.
As mentioned above, bar 7 begins on the A note tied over from the previous bar, which makes perfect sense, since we have now landed on an Am7 chord, consisting of the notes A,C,E & G. Parker keeps this bar fairly sparse, opting to play the notes E & C, the 5th and minor 3rd of the Am7 respectively. That C then moves up nicely to a D, anticipating the following D7 chord perfectly. Parker then finishes the bar with a Db, which is actually a nice set up for bar 8.
That Db tied over from bar 7 creates a nice bit of tension, as it is the 4th of the Abm7 chord (Ab, Cb, Eb, Gb.) This creates a suspended sound, which quickly resolves down nicely to the Cb (the minor 3rd) and is followed by an Eb (the 5th) again, using the approach of playing off of chord tones. Over the Db7 chord (Db, F, Ab, Cb) Parker targets the minor 7th, which on the score is written as a B (the Cb in the Db7 chord actually sounds as a B.) Bird’s final note in the bar is an Ab, which is the 5th of the Db7 chord, and will move down a semitone for the first note of the next bar.
Bar 9 starts on a G, which as mentioned before, is great voice leading from the previous bar. Parker is playing over a Gm7 for the entire bar here, and again makes some great note choices, which really help to make this melody memorable. Gm7 consists of the notes G Bb D & F, and Parker chooses to start on the G (the root) and hits 3 F notes in a row, emphasising the minor 7th of the chord, before going for a D, B and another D, strictly staying on chord tones for the entire bar length.
C7 is the chord of choice for bar 10, which contains the notes C, E, G & Bb. There are no other chords in this bar, but Parker still makes his note choices count. He opts to start on the 6th (A) before moving down to a chord tone, the 5th (G.) He then follows this up with the root (C) the minor 7th (Bb) and then, interestingly, the minor 3rd (Eb) – my guess here is that, being a blues based tune, most blues musicians would play the minor 3rd instead of the major 3rd over a dominant 7th chord, and Parker chooses the same approach, creating a nice tension. We finish up with the root note (C) tied across to the next bar, which then becomes the 5th of the Am7.
Bar 11, as touched on above, begins with an Am7 chord (A, C, E & G) with Parker again anticipating it’s arrival with the note choice of C, a common chord tone shared between C7 from the previous bar, and Am7. He then plays the root note (A) before moving down to F, which is actually the minor 6th, which is then followed with the note G over the D7 chord, another interesting choice as it actually functions as the 4th, or the 11th. Parker then finishes the main melody with a D tied over to the next bar, which becomes the 5th of the G-7 chord (G, Bb, D, F) before going to the minor 3rd (Bb) and then the 5th (D) before finally finishing on the 6th, or the 13th, of C7.
Charlie Parker’s melody at the top of “Blues For Alice” is highly effective and extremely catchy, and you should make every attempt to borrow the concepts on display here and incorporate them into your own playing. If you’re a jazz player, then any of the licks in each individual bar can be lifted and practised in all 12 keys, with the goal to eventually make them your own. In particular, I have found a lot of the II V ideas very useful as ideas to help me navigate similar changes myself. However, even if you are not a jazz musician, there are still many techniques that you can borrow and apply to your own improvisations, namely:
- The use of chord tones to help you navigate complex chord changes, which Parker does perfectly here.
- The use of interesting chord tones, especially as target notes, such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths, to get out of the sound of just playing arpeggios over and over again.
- The use of similar arpeggios superimposed over the underlying chord, such as the Ebmaj7 over the Cm7.
- Breaking up your arpeggios by choosing not to play them in the traditional order.
- Anticipating the next chord early, by either finding common tones between the chords or thinking of the next chord tone half a beat early.
- Great voice leading by finding chord tones that move a semitone between each chord change.
I hope you found the above useful and that you have fun learning to play this piece, it’s a tricky one to get down on guitar but well worth it! Let me know in the comments what you thought of today’s lesson, and also any suggestions for tunes I could analyse in the future from any genre. Until next time…