One of the grandest traditions in jazz is that of melodic variation, or personalizing melodies according to the taste of the performer. And it pre-dates jazz, too. I once read that Louis Armstrong was inspired to create the jazz solo as we know it by listening to operatic tenors embellish the arias they sang.
When we listen to Armstrong, Lester Young, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, and today’s jazzers play jazz versions of The Great American Songbook, they each phrase the melodies in their own personal way. After all, this is a big part of the fun, right? We can delay a note here, anticipate a phrase there, and add embellishments along the way. We can even interpret the melody differently each time we play it! That’s jazz.
But with bebop melodies, it’s different. We open the Real Book or maybe learn a bebop tune by ear and play it the same way every time. We’ll interpret “Autumn Leaves,” but not “Anthropology.” “There Will Never Be Another You,” but not “Straight No Chaser.”
Some musicians, however, do.
Gil Evans was one of them, and I’m suggesting that we can tap into vast reserves of creativity if we begin following his example.
To hear this freshly, let’s listen to Charlie Parker play his tune “Yardbird Suite,” which he recorded in 1946.
Now, listen to how much fun Gil Evans had when he arranged Yardbird Suite just a year later, in 1947:
Yardbird Suite, played by the Claude Thornhill big band:
The amazing thing is that Parker and Evans were friends, and they even roomed together for a time. Parker clearly approved of this approach to his composition, and it amazes me that the practice of altering bebop melodies has mostly ceased to occur over the years since then.
Just think about it: Parker writes a great melody which embodies the exciting “new” bebop sound of the day, and Evans changes it without hesitation. Rather than being viewed as an attempt to disrespect Parker’s tune, it was celebrated as being in the same spirit!
Why don’t we do this too?
Let’s each of us sit down at our piano this week, play a bebop tune, and have fun personalizing the melody. I’m going to begin with Charlie Parker’s “Moose The Mooche.” What’ll you play?
Enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”
PS – If you’re following my Journey Through The Real Book, here’s #135:
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