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Brad Mehldau: Final Detour—Bird’s Hegelian Blues

In the seventh part of his series Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane, Brad Mehldau—using multiple examples of scores—finally looks at Bird himself.

Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
Part Seven: Final Detour: Bird’s Hegelian Blues

Finally, let’s look at Bird himself. Always at his most inspired, this solo on his own blues, “Cheryl,” comes from a live recording. Here it is in its entirety. In five brief choruses that last a total of just over one minute, this solo is a marvel in its brevity—he manages to say more here than most musicians say in a whole lifetime. The melody, or “head,” of the tune is given directly below, in concert key, followed by the solo:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 1 

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 2 

The thing that we notice about Bird’s solo, compared with any number of his imitators, is its ease and its wide reach. There is a strong, unmistakable identity to it; everything correlates to everything. Yet there is nothing dogmatic or fixed about the way that identity lets itself be known. So what you get is a variance of approach from one idea to the next that not one of Bird’s progeny could match. He is constantly switching gears and thus always keeping it fresh for the listener.

Bird likes to create disruption within a solo—something that many of his imitators do not do to equal effect. Many of us have probably heard this clone-like approach to be-bop, when a player strings together Bird’s phrases and little else. It’s probably the type of playing that Frank Zappa had in mind when he mused that “Jazz isn’t dead; it just smells funny.” Bird himself, though, at his most inspired, is always playing hopscotch with our expectations—and, one suspects, his own. You can almost hear him thinking during a solo sometimes, “Yeah, I could play that right now, like I’ve done before, but let me do this instead.” So, right after the nuanced phrase that opens his solo at bar 14, he follows it with an exclamatory blues outburst. It is a quick, immediate moment of rupture, as Bird introduces his inner badass—quite a different personage than the one who just spoke. It’s exciting and dangerous; it’s reckless. At bar 20, he develops that blues utterance, but then masterfully folds it back into a phrase at bars 22 to 24 that is more like the one that began the solo, except that now there is more heat.

It’s a discursive approach versus a declamatory one. The opening phrase is more discursive, and by that we mean that Bird’s line traces a possible harmonic progression over the tonic—there is tension and provisional resolution within that line. The dirty, unbridled blues that follows is more static—it is an end in itself; it gives us no puzzle to solve. The way in which the blues utterance seems to shut down the discussion that had just started—only to find itself melded into the following line—reminds us of the same kind of approach we identified earlier in the opening gestures of Beethoven’s Op. 95 “Serioso” Quartet. It might be a stretch, but we could look at the approach in a Hegelian light: In both the Beethoven and the Bird solo, an initial proposition and its negative are then preserved in a third idea—a process that Beethoven’s contemporary Hegel called Aufhebung or “sublation.” This act of sublation gives the music a narrative flow—it is a distinct event within the solo, but it also becomes part of a larger continuum. It gives a feeling of time passing—indeed, it has the effect of stretching time. Bird’s short solo here has the same compressed quality as the Beethoven Op. 95—they both tell us so much; they both take us on a journey in a shorter amount of time than we might think. 

A 12-bar blues, at its most simple, stays on the tonic for the first four bars and then heads to the subdominant at the fifth bar. Very often, we hear a variation on that: The second bar will move to the subdominant for a moment, and then return back to the tonic on the third bar. This is commonplace, but Bird found all sorts of ways to enrich that gambit. What he did—paving the way for Coltrane’s harmonic innovations—was to suggest harmonic progressions within simple, strong pre-existing formats like the blues. We say, “suggest,” and not “superimpose,” because the line that Bird plays suggests a myriad of harmonic possibilities, not just one.

Imagine you are a pianist comping behind Bird. You might harmonize that opening phrase of his solo like this (Here and throughout, the alto saxophone is given in concert pitch):

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 3 

You’d definitely be within Bird’s parameters. First, you doubled his characteristic major seventh right away in the first bar—the fourth note of Bird’s line, the B-natural directly below middle-C. The major seventh is big for Bird, like it was big for Lester Young before him. It can be felt in the music, depending on its context, as a concession or a whole-hearted embrace of something that is foreign to the blues—something that we might say, at the risk of being impolitic, is very “white.” Specifically, that B-natural in the first bar is behaving itself just as the seventh degree of the diatonic major scale is supposed to. It is acting as the final leading tone that pulls us back to the tonic, just the way it has acted for centuries in Western classical music. Bird’s deepness—that wide reach—is felt in the way he carries on a few different conversations at the same time—one is about the blues, and one is about more traditional functional harmony.

The more traditional “classical” conversation is about tension and resolution. That leading tone in the first bar is characterized by its close proximity to the first degree of the scale—it nestles up chromatically towards it, and this proximity creates a strong pull towards resolution. The magnetic attraction of the leading tone to the first degree of the scale is part and parcel with that most basic of harmonic resolutions, dominant to tonic, and is a central tenet of a big chunk of music. If you’re dealing with harmony and the 12-tone scale, it’s hard to get away from that.

But you can get away from it real fast if you play any variant of the blues scale, with the flatted seventh. Here is one such variant, given in C—it is really a minor pentatonic scale with the flatted fifth added:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 4 

Bird—and a whole cross-section of jazz players—will have his cake and eat it too: He uses both the major and minor sevenths in the same phrase. If you’re first learning about be-bop from someone, you may be encouraged to learn the “be-bop scale”:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 5 

The idea in learning that kind of scale is to get you thinking about making lines like Bird made—lines that make simultaneous use of both kinds of sevenths. To make it clearer, here is a Bird-type phrase where they fall right next to each other in the second bar, like in the scale:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 6 

So Bird begins that long opening phrase with a B-natural but then ends on a B-flat. That B-flat is multifaceted. One the one hand, it denotes the blues: It is a flatted interval that, along with the flatted fifth and flatted third, gives the blues its harmonic character. When a blues musician like Howlin’ Wolf plays the guitar, sings, and plays the harmonica, tracing melodies around those notes, his music is fundamentally harmonically different than much of Western classical music because those melodies, with their flatted intervals, are felt and understood to be in the tonic key. 

This is self-evident, but we shouldn’t underestimate that distinction. Nowadays, a great number of people worldwide have been exposed to the character and sound of the blues, although more often than not, they are exposed to something watered down or trivialized; so be it. Nevertheless, that very large group of people has no problem identifying “one”—hearing where the tonic is among those diminished intervals. A tune will end on a chord like this, let’s say, with a grandstanding flourish:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 7 

Everyone hears that as the tonic. What would Beethoven have heard, though, if he only heard that ending by itself? Would he even recognize it as being in the tonic key? He would probably hear it as something very strange—he would hear the piano chord there as a very dissonant version of a dominant chord that must resolve itself—in this case, to F Major. And it’s hard to imagine what he would make of the saxophone part—as a strange outburst, no doubt.

That type of saxophone flourish, which is more purely blues in nature, might not register as intelligible for Beethoven, but he wouldn’t have such a hard time with Bird’s long opening phrase that we first considered. He would hear the B-flat that ends the phrase differently than we do, though— namely as leading to the subdominant key of F that is approaching in the fifth bar of the solo, at bar 18. We hear that as well, but we also hear the blues in that B-flat. With our ears steeped in the blues and centuries of Western music alike, we can have these two simultaneous conversations with Bird. That B-flat is so alluring and exciting when Bird lands on it because of its dual meaning. It’s like a great actor appearing on the stage who wears the garb of a nobleman fresh from a visit to the court but adapts the speech rhythms of a twentieth century hipster. We are surprised and delighted because we respond naturally and easily to both of these musical tropes, but have not expected them to inhabit the same character.

The blues for Bird begins as something authentic and independent of traditional Western music theory, but with Bird’s mastery of harmony and inventive melodic approach, the blues also becomes one of several means of chromatically enriching the simple 12-bar schema. Looking at the opening line of his solo again,

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 8 

we see that Bird is also using that be-bop scale with both sevenths in the second bar over the implied F subdominant tonality. The be-bop scale shows its effectiveness in a different light: It gives the players in the band—soloist and accompanying pitched instruments alike—a cue of sorts to chromatically thicken the texture. This isn’t willy-nilly chromaticism, though. Bird’s E-flat and E-natural in that second bar both easily attach themselves in our ears to the last notes of that bar, the C and the A, to create chains of relatively consonant third intervals. Many of Bird’s great lines form themselves by linking a major or minor triad to a passing tone that is half a step away from one of the notes in the triad. Bird joins something stepwise and something triadic:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 9 

In this way, Bird—like Bach and all the great conjoiners of melody and harmony before him—strongly denotes “vertical” harmony within a mere single-note horizontal melody: The outlined triads strongly suggests a harmonic progression, but the stepwise motion of those passing tones gives the line a melodic suppleness and keeps it from being mere glorified arpeggiation.

Bird’s continuing pervasive influence on the jazz vernacular is not merely because he joined together triads and scales to form his lines, though. It really rests on the way in which he codified that conjoining into a style that was so appealing in its plasticity. In that regard, it’s instructive to compare Bird with another innovative contemporary of his, the tenor saxophonist Don Byas. Byas was often more harmonically adventurous than Bird, arpeggiating further outwards from the triad, creating lines that effectively traced the piquant harmony of modern jazz, with its characteristic dominant seventh, ninth, and eleventh chords in their various permutations. But Byas, like Coleman Hawkins before him, is ultimately more literal than Bird—we hear the shape of a chord easily in his lines; he does not transcend arpeggiation in the way that Bird does.

There is nothing wrong with arpeggiation in itself, but Bird’s transcended that literal quality, and the less literal one is, the more possibilities remain. To demonstrate that further, let’s look at Bird’s opening line and imagine that he has a slightly hipper piano player comping behind him. This time we’ll give him some rhythm as well:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 10 

The pianist has gotten bolder in the second bar by inserting a half-diminished chord between the F triad and the C dominant thirteenth chord that follows. The F-sharp bass note then moves naturally upwards in scalewise motion towards a G in the third bar, instead of simply jumping back from F to C. (We can just as easily imagine this bass movement being supplied by the bass player in the rhythm section; I keep it in the piano part here just to show it on one stave.) This move to G in the bass is less clumpy and more sexy and sophisticated, but it is also more discursive in that way we mentioned earlier—it thickens the plot and packs more tension into a smaller amount of space.

We now have a bluesy descendant of the second inversion triad in the piano chords at the third bar, which, in the high Classicism of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven, is associated with the final climactic tutti utterance from the orchestra in a concerto, directly followed by a cadenza from the soloist that ends the movement with a flourish. The second inversion in both cases transmits a quickening and delayed gratification all at once. The message is that you’ve arrived at your destination—the tonic chord—but will just have to sit tight for a moment and merely gaze at it longingly. In the Classical concerto, the second inversion tonic will come back once more at the end of the cadenza, head to the dominant—already stated in the bass—and then finally resolve to the tonic to end. In the case above, that G in the bass leads us to one of the stock jazz progressions, the famous 2-5-1—that 1 being the new 1 of the F tonality of the fifth bar as the solo continues. And so we have what is long since a normative gambit within the first four bars of a 12-bar blues, brought to you by Charlie Parker.

That F-sharp half-diminished chord from our hipper piano player works quite nicely with Bird’s line, but the interesting thing is that the simpler F dominant seventh chord that the first imaginary comper played also worked just fine. Both accompaniments are already immanent in Bird’s line, which, with its E-natural and E flat, allows for both of them. This is the freedom of Bird on display—his lines sound unshackled in a way that no one else’s do because of they are so ripe with harmonic possibility. The pianist and other members of the rhythm section are likewise “free”—free to choose any number of hip ways of getting from Point A to Point B.

So, the E-flat in that second bar of Bird’s solo is a blues impulse, but paired with the E-natural, the blues is also felt as chromatic enrichment in the way it densifies the harmonic texture. We still have our 12-bar format; we still go from the tonic to the subdominant back to the tonic in the first four bars, but our journey is more involved. The emotional effect from all this on the listener, I think, is that Bird’s nuanced chromaticism brings romance to the music.

One way to think about this is through the metaphor of color. When a harmonic progression is less chromatically enhanced, the colors remain primary; when it is enhanced as in the example above, they become more pastel. Likewise, as those colors become more pastel, the emotions conveyed are increasingly complex; namely, there is the possibility to convey mixed emotions. Sentiment is less simple; we do not only hear the “primary color” emotions like joy and sorrow, but we also things like longing, wistfulness, and regret. Irony steps forward.

Admittedly, I’m putting forth a subjective reaction to the music, but Bird’s deeply beautiful long phrase that runs from bar 66 through bar 69 tells us all about longing and regret. To close, we look at the final chorus again of his solo that contains that phrase. I’ve inserted chord symbols to represent what the piano player comps for Bird. The piano player is none other than Bud Powell.

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 11 

Bird’s first long phrase is feminine in nature. It is willfully naïve and simple, but almost trite. In bars 61 and 62, he is courting a cliché but then backs away from it. Bud, though, gives us the blues unquestionably in his dominant seventh and ninth chords. The way Bird’s pretty B-natural rubs against Bud’s B-flats is a great example of how be-bop should work—both players are free to approach the blues in different ways, and the tension they create in doing so is compelling. Bird’s next line from bar 66 through 69 is the kind of phrase that separates him from all his imitators—it’s so full of harmonic possibility; it suggests so much. When I look at it now and play it, it seems to suggest this kind of harmony:

Mehldau Part 7 Music Example 12 

I’m following the chromatic descent that Bird suggests in his line. The result is a variation on a progression that you hear on any number of tin-pan–alley tunes like “Candy” or “I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me.” It’s romantic; it’s sweet. In itself, it was already nothing new at all when Bird arrived.

That kind of progression—not explicitly stated, but immanent, if you will, in Bird’s line, becomes something new when it rubs against the blues, which Bud Powell makes explicit in his comping: He bypasses that chromatic descent and stays mostly with dominant chords in the first eight bars of this chorus. The tension that arises when the craggy blue notes and sweet “white” ones rub against each other is subtle and thrilling. Does this have a name in music theory—besides “wrong”—when one person plays major intervals and another plays flatted notes directly against them? Is it a kind of suspension? That it’s something chromatic is about all we can say, and it works best in praxis. We can forensically examine Bird’s playing with his groups and maybe establish a method, but it is, as the writer Italo Calvino remarked in the context of literature, “a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatsoever.”

At the risk of using a bandied word, Bird’s blues is deconstructive, meaning that it critiques traditional functional harmony and engages with it at the same time. Jazz music in Bird’s representative oeuvre is a marriage of romance and the blues. The blues becomes precious, and romance loses a bit of its preciousness.

In these segments, we’ve been considering the benefits and limits of a three-period model when applied to Beethoven and Coltrane. Before I go back to Coltrane for the next and last post, we should ask, after all this discussion of Bird’s innovation: Is Bird like Coltrane or Beethoven? The way I see it, no. Bird did not reach a third phase. He never transcended his own mature style for a second time. His early death leaves the question open as to whether his playing would have significantly changed again. There are some fascinating early recordings, for example, of Bird as a soloist with the Jay McShann’s band that might constitute a kind of first period of Bird’s, but not in the same way that we have been understanding Beethoven’s and Coltrane’s first periods. To clarify: The first period of Beethoven—which includes his six Op. 18 string quartets, the three Op. 2 piano sonatas, the early piano trios and his first two symphonies—and the first period of Coltrane—which includes his recorded work in the bands of Miles and Thelonious Monk as well as numerous dates for the Prestige label under his own name—are canonical in their own right, independent of what Beethoven and Coltrane subsequently achieved. Their first period output captures our imagination on its own terms; it is fully realized and we make no concessions in listening to it. 

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