Six Degrees of Bud Powell, Part ii-V-I

Six degrees of BP lix edit

Note: as in previous posts, I have included YouTube links for some of the recordings mentioned; however, as always, readers are encouraged to purchase the recordings themselves, as YouTube considerably limits a listener’s ability to fast forward and rewind, which are essential functions for studying these recordings in the depth that they require.  In addition, the recordings for which I have not provided links are equally important and should be sought out as well.

Continuing with the last post’s theme of Bud Powell’s influence, here are four licks that outline the major ii-V-I progression, each with a connection to Bud.  The first ii-V-I lick listed above is from the Denzil Best tune  ‘Move’ .  The best known version of this bop standard is on Miles Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ album.  In his excellent and exhaustive biography ‘Wail: The Life of Bud Powell’, Peter Pullman relates how, although Powell never recorded ‘Move’ with Miles Davis, he played it live (and took a rapturously received solo on it) with an iteration of Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ band, and played it  with his trio.  A measure of the usefulness and durability of this lick is that a particular five-note fragment of it shows up, with different rhythmic placements, in Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton’s tune ‘Perdido Line’ (based on Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s ‘Perdido’), Miles Davis’ solo on ‘Oleo’ (from ‘Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants’), Clifford Brown’s solo on ‘Pent Up House’, and much earlier in the vocal scat portion of Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Hotter Than That’.

The lick that I have excerpted from Clifford Brown’s ‘Pent-Up House’ solo begins with  what Barry Harris calls ‘the G seventh scale with the half step between the root and the seventh’ (sometimes also called the ‘bebop seventh scale’).  It also demonstrates one of the basic concepts through which Harris teaches the bebop style – anticipating the V chord in a ii-V progression by using the scale based off the root of the V over the ii chord.  The original recording of ‘Pent Up House’ featured Powell’s brother Richie on piano (in addition to Sonny Rollins, who Pullman describes as both a collaborator and student of Powell’s).  Pullman’s biography suggests that Richie had little contact with Bud during his formative years as a musician, due in part to the time Bud spent in psychiatric institutions, and that in fact Bud Powell’s other student and collaborator Jackie McLean arranged for much of Richie’s musical education.  As a result, over the course of his short life Richie developed into a player with a marked similarity of style to Bud, although his compositions also show a marked contrast with those of Bud.  I hope to discuss these in a future post.)

I encourage pianists to practice each of these licks in the right hand in combination with a left hand voicing, either the shell voicing ( p. 23 in Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil DeGreg, sometimes called the ‘Bud Powell voicing’) or what Phil DeGreg calls the ‘A form voicing’ (in which the minor and major seventh chords are voiced ‘off the seventh’) (DeGreg p. 79).

The Sonny Rollins lick shown above is taken from the fourth chorus of his solo on ‘Tune Up’ (from the album ‘Newk’s Time’).  The first seven notes of this phrase, like the ‘Move’ lick, also show up on recordings from disparate eras of jazz history; before Rollins used it, it was part of Duke Jordan’s piano intro to Charlie Parker’s original recording of ‘Scrapple From The Apple’; shortly after Rollins used it, it was the opening phrase of the melody to Ornette Coleman’s tune ‘The Blessing’ (on his early album ‘Something Else!!!!’).  (On piano, this lick may be practiced in the right hand along with what Phil DeGreg calls the ‘B’ voicing, of the major ii-V-I, shown on p. 81 of Jazz Keyboard Harmony.  This is the voicing where the minor and major chords are voiced ‘off the third’.)  Sonny Rollins made some of the first recordings in his massive career with Powell, notably on ‘Bouncin’ With Bud’ and ‘Wail’.  The ‘Tune Up’ solo is also an interesting document in terms of Rollins’ digestion of Charlie Parker’s influence: Rollins uses one of Parker’s signature motives in the second chorus of the solo, although it is surrounded with the kind of intervallic ideas that would become characteristic of Rollins.  (Wynton Kelly also uses the same Charlie Parker phrase later in his piano solo on the same recording.  One of the many uses Parker made of this phrase can be heard in his classic ‘Koko’ solo, near the end of the bridge in the first chorus.)

The last ii-V-I pattern is from the first chorus of Parker’s solo on ‘Billie’s Bounce’.  (On piano this can be played in the right hand with the shell voicing from p. 24 of DeGreg in the left hand).  Like the Clifford Brown lick, the Parker lick exhibits the bebop concept of ‘half steps’ (i.e., non-scale tones on upbeats of an eighth-note-based line); in this case Parker uses what Barry Harris calls the half step between the second and root of the D seventh scale.


(I encourage pianists to practice all the licks above in the RH with the suggested LH voicing, and then transpose each one through a pattern of ii-V-I progressions descending by whole steps.  In the case of the first two licks this would mean starting with the ii-V-I in the written key of C (Dm7-G7-Cmaj7) and then moving down to the key of B flat (Cm7-F7-Bbmaj7), and continuing until the key of D is reached (Em7-A7-Dmaj7).  The next step is to start up a half step from the written key (in the case of the first two licks, on the ii-V-I in D flat, Ebm7-Ab7-Dbmaj) and follow a descending whole step pattern from there, moving through six keys as before.)

Pullman’s biography of Bud Powell includes some fascinating details of the relationship between Powell and Parker, which included both friction and mutual respect.  In an interview quoted by Pullman, Billy Taylor says that Powell told him: ‘I want to make the piano sound just like Charlie Parker’.  On a personal level, however, Pullman reveals that Powell and Parker did not get along.  The uneven nature of their professional relationship is indicated by the history of their recordings: while Powell recorded a number of highly personalized versions of Parker’s tunes, these two giants of the bebop movement seem to have recorded only one set of tunes in the studio together (Donna Lee, Buzzy, Chasin’ The Bird, and Cheryl), on which Powell is not featured much as a soloist.  One can only wonder if this is part of the reason that some of Powell’s versions of Parker’s tunes (his readings of Ornithology and Moose The Mooche, for example) are less respectful ‘covers’ than recompositions of the melody where Powell personalizes Parker’s work, takes control of it through the force of his musical imagination, almost to the point where he could take ownership of it.

Great jazz soloists such as Rollins and Parker are often portrayed as rugged individualists whose creativity far outshone their less remarkable bandmates; as I mentioned in another post, this makes it easy to overlook the fact that many of these great soloists were equally great collaborators who excelled at ensemble improvising techniques such as trading fours.  I would argue that, especially in the bebop style, a number of great improvisers who seem focused almost exclusively on the single note line, particularly Parker, often have an interest in counterpoint (i.e. the creation of independent melodic lines that express the same harmonic movement) that can be detected beneath the surface of their composing and improvising.  Parker’s tunes ‘Ornithology’ and ‘Donna Lee’ are based on ‘How High The Moon’ and ‘Indiana’, and although the melodies of the original tunes are not included in Parker’s recordings, Parker’s tunes form a strong contrapuntal whole when combined with the original melodies.  This raises the question of whether writing a countermelody was one of Parker’s goals in the process of composing these tunes, even though it did not play a role in the way he performed them. (Pullman notes that one of the reasons bop players created new melodies for existing chord changes was to make the quick money of an advance against copyright royalties.  Given that necessity was the mother of invention here, it was left to later generations to discover what great counterpoint Parker had devised with these original tunes.)   Thomas Owens has shown how Parker’s  solo on ‘Shaw Nuff’ and J.S. Bach’s Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor both ‘illustrate how monophonic lines are able to project harmonically sophisticated counterpoint with unexpected twists of syncopation.’  (His discussion of this is on p. 15-19 of the Google books excerpt to which I linked; the musical examples are missing, but the Bach score can be viewed at IMSLP and the ‘Shaw Nuff’ solo is in the Reeves textbook.  As the excerpt gives only a flavor of Owens’ analysis, I encourage anyone interested to seek out the book.)

Joe Lovano (on his album ‘Bird Songs’), Dexter Gordon and I have all created arrangements in which multiple bop tunes on the same changes combine to form a two-voice texture, and the counterpoint is so strong that it almost seems the tunes were intended to be played together.  These kinds of experiments follow the lead of Parker’s rare but notable experiments in counterpoint, ‘Ah-Leu-Cha’ and one of the tunes he recorded with Powell, ‘Chasin’ the Bird’.  These pieces both show Parker’s well-documented interest in more large-scale composition that might have flourished had he lived longer.  Although Powell lived longer than Parker, his recorded work also includes some tantalizing hints of an interest in large-scale composing, including his composition ‘Glass Enclosure’ and an arrangement of ‘Sure Thing’ in which he seems to have moved through the re-composition process and arrived at a completely original piece.   It was only after Parker and Powell’s time that the larger scale contrapuntal works of John Lewis, such as ‘Three Windows’, offered examples of what more extended composition informed by a bop sensibility sounds like.

In the spirit of these experiments in bop counterpoint, I have grouped the ii-V-I patterns above into pairs that may be practiced simultaneously by two instruments or by the two hands of a pianist.  (The staff brace lines indicate the pairs.)  This is only meant as a secondary application of the patterns; I strongly suggest practicing each pattern by itself along with chord changes, through all keys, before trying to combine the patterns.  Although there are examples of contrapuntal bop improvising (such as in this example from the Gerry Mulligan pianoless quartet with Paul Desmond, where trading fours gives way to counterpoint), I hope the examples here make the point that improvising simultaneous contrapuntal lines is only one of many ways that improvisers can think contrapuntally.  Practicing these ii-V-I patterns could help you think of your soloing as part of an imagined contrapuntal texture, where the countermelody you are improvising forms a counterpoint to an unheard melody, or possibly even a counterpoint to your previous chorus.

I encourage readers to leave a comment mentioning a short lick from a bop tune, transcribed solo or recording (maybe even a ii-V or ii-V-I pattern) which you’ve found particularly memorable or which ‘lies’ well on your instrument.  First make sure to mention the name of the tune and the recording.  Then, if you can, describe the pattern using letter names, numbered scale degrees, solfege, or even a link to a notated score excerpt, so other readers can try learning the pattern.  Even if you have trouble describing the lick, leave us a link where we can hear it – maybe another reader can find a way to describe it!

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