What is this scale called: Charlie Parker, Barry Harris and the minor ii-V progression

Charlie Parker recorded a number of solos on the chord progression to ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’.   On two of these performances, a 1952 studio version of ‘What Is This Thing’ with a big band and a live 1953 version of ‘Hot House’ (a Tadd Dameron tune which uses the same changes), Parker takes two different solos, but he can be heard working with some of the same material in both.  I would suggest that these two performances are different stages of a work that was constantly in progress, although not necessarily progressing in a linear way toward a single ideal of perfection.  Billy Taylor’s various versions of his tune I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, discussed in another post, are another example of this kind of process.   (The tradition of revising one’s own solo is perhaps a modern extension of the older jazz tradition of revising a solo by another player which I explored in my post ‘Oh, Play That Thing!’.  So far as I know, although Parker studied the solos of Lester Young, he never performed any of them.) The more I listen to these solos, the more I think Parker was on a journey of ceaseless exploration rather than a quest for some kind of musical mountaintop, and so the most interesting question is not ‘which solo was better?’, but ‘how did Parker’s musical journey evolve over the course of these two solos?’.  When I compare the two versions I am fascinated by how Parker used a number of the same concepts and patterns in both of them, and yet never sounded repetitive.   (This reminds me that while playing a Bird transcription accurately can sound good, it is not in his spirit of constant creativity.)

One of the licks that Parker uses in both these solos is what I call the ‘seven down to the third’ scale.  This name comes from the scale approach that Barry Harris teaches to the minor ii-V progression.  As shown below, the minor ii-V progression has the same ascending-fourth/descending fifth root motion as the major ii-V progressions discussed in the last post, but the ii chord is a minor 7 flat five (rather than simply a minor seventh) and the V chord, in simplest version of the progression, is a dominant seven flat nine chord (rather than simply a dominant).  Barry’s approach to the minor ii-V, like many of his other teaching concepts, is based on the ‘seventh scale’ (a.k.a. the mixolydian scale).  Rather than assigning two different scales to the two chords of the minor ii-V, as many improvisation methods do, Barry uses a ‘seven up and down’ pattern with a seventh scale starting a major third below the root of the ii chord (or a minor third above the root of the V chord).

This scale choice has multiple benefits: for one, it is a pitch collection which is consonant with the m7b5 chord but avoids accenting its root.  Also, when the ‘seven down’ half of the scale is ended on the note a half step above the scale’s root, it outlines  a fully diminished chord that functions as a rootless voicing of the V chord.

In my class we call this scale ‘E flat 7 up and down to the 3rd of C’.  Building off of this admittedly lengthy name, I call the second half of this scale the ‘7 down to the 3rd’ scale.  (In my class, we practice minor ii-V-i patterns in which this descending scale is preceded by patterns that use what we call the ‘locrian pentascale’, which can be thought of as the third to the seventh degrees of the seventh scale from a major third below the root, or scale steps seven through four of the major scale beginning a half step above the root.  These patterns can be heard on the first phrase of each A section in this scale outline of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’.

Parker uses the ‘seven down to the 3rd’ scale in both his ‘What Is This’ and ‘Hot House’ solos to outline the C7b9 chord in measure 10, but where the 1952 solo stretches the scale over the course of two measures, the 1953 solo flies through it at the end of a fast series of 16th notes.  Where the ’52 solo is more shorter and more playable, the ’53 solo is more virtuosic.  The later solo goes on longer, but is more frenetic, as though Parker feels that he’s running out of time.  In the transcription below, I’ve placed Parker’s two solos in two adjacent staves to highlight the way he reuses no less than five melodic ideas (the one mentioned above and those mentioned below the transcription) and yet ends up with two completely different solos.  (A side note: The more I look at Parker’s composed and improvised melodic lines from this contrapuntal view, the more I notice him consciously or subconsciously creating a countermelody to an earlier line on the same changes, either one of his own compositions or a popular song.  Look, for instance, at how the later solo counters the melodic motion of the earlier one in mm. 3, 7-8 and 14-15.)

In the ’53 solo, Parker begins the first A with the same four-note motive that he used in the last A in the earlier solo (m. 25), which gives the impression that he is picking up where he left in ’52, almost as though no time had elapsed.  The second phrase of the ’53 solo (m.3) also uses a phrase from the ’52 solo, this time moving a lick originally used in the second A (at beat 4 of m. 11) into the first A section.  Both solos use the same five-note motive on both the Ab7 and G7 chords at the end of the bridge, but enclose them in different phrases and place them at different points in the bar.  Measure 26 is the only time both solos use the same lick at the same time, a quote from the Bizet opera ‘Carmen’.

I first heard of Barry Harris from Yusef Lateef, whose improvisation class I took at Hampshire College in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  On the first day of class, Yusef identified himself as one of Barry’s students by saying something like: ‘I’m just going to show you what Barry Harris showed me’.  Since then, I’ve sought out Barry’s playing and teaching more and more over the years and found him a perennial source of musical wisdom.

As with the work of other bop masters, I’ve found that I can return to Barry’s recordings over and over and learn something new each time.  I spent a while in the early 2000s transcribing the great tunes and arrangements from Barry’s album Luminescence, and over the last five years or so I have been I checking out At the Jazz Workshop.  Released a year after Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue brought the extended, floating harmonies pioneered by Ahmad Jamal and Bill Evans to a mass audience,  At The Jazz Workshop pays no heed to the modal style but rather reflects Harris’ devotion to the more frequently modulating, obstacle-course harmonies of the bebop period.   The album demonstrates how Harris was continuing to successfully evolve the melodic language of bebop, and the bebop concept of group interaction, at a time when many players had started to explore other sources of melodic invention and other concepts of ensemble playing. It is also a great example of how mid-20th century jazz repertoire created variety through a combination of popular tunes from the first half of the century (Don’t Blame Me, Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby), bop standards (Moose The Mooche, Woody N’You), and the blues (Barry’s original Morning Coffee).

At the Jazz Workshop is not built on arrangements as detailed as those of the Ahmad Jamal trio of the same era, nor does it go in the direction of the greater freedom for rhythm section players pioneered in the John Coltrane and Bill Evans group of that era; it is built instead on the model of the Bud Powell trios.  In this format, the focus is on piano improvisation, with bass solos and trading between piano and drums used regularly to vary the return to the head statement.  This format requires a rhythm section which, like any great pair of comedians or policemen, can keep a relentless pace without rushing and can respond immediately to sudden developments.  Sam Jones and Louis Hayes, already veterans by the time of this album, achieve the same kind of tenacious unity as Max Roach and George Duvivier on the Bud Powell sides.

At The Jazz Workshop contains great examples of a number of important improvisational concepts, among them Barry’s approach to the minor ii-V progression.  Barry can be heard using the ‘seven down to the third’ scale in a couple of places on  At The Jazz Workshop.  In the last A section on the third chorus of his Woody N’You solo, he navigates all three of the minor ii-V progressions with this scale.  As the whole chorus is a great model of left hand-right hand conversation on a tune with an active harmonic rhythm, I have included my transcription of the whole chorus here.


In his solo on take 2 of ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ from At The Jazz Workshop, Harris repeatedly uses a phrase ending in the ‘seven down to the third of’ scale to navigate the recurring Gm7b5-C7b9 change.  Like Parker in the two solos above, Harris makes this motive sound different each time he recycles it by giving it a different rhythmic placement each time.  Here is the phrase as it would apply to a two bar minor ii-V.  (Harris uses this lick by double timing it, i.e., playing it in 16th notes over a single bar near the end of the phrase that starts at 1:20 on the recording.)

I encourage readers to leave a comment of any kind, but I particularly encourage comments mentioning (and perhaps including a link to) a favorite improvised solo on a tune involving minor ii-V or ii-V-i progressions, or examples of a lick being creatively re-used by a improviser, either within one solo or across multiple solos.

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One Response to What is this scale called: Charlie Parker, Barry Harris and the minor ii-V progression

  1. Great post! I have enjoyed reading this blog immensely and getting a window into some of these jazz concepts.

    One of my favorite solos over a ii-V-i heavy tune has always been Dexter Gordon’s solo on Night In Tunisia from Our Man In Paris. Although most of the A sections are of course ii-TS/V and not ii-V, I am always amazed by how Dexter can take such simple minor pentatonic licks and move about them in a way that is fresh an innovative.


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