Charlie Parker: Embraceable You

To me, one of the most amazing human activities is musical improvisation, especially in jazz. How can somebody come up with a new and appealing variation of a theme, and play it on the spot? It’s this instant translation of thought into music—good music—that so baffles me.

One of the best examples comprises two takes of the George and Ira Gershwin classic “Embraceable You,” by perhaps the greatest jazz saxophonist in history:  Charlie Parker (1920-1955).  Parker recorded both versions in New York City on October 28, 1947.  The differences between them, reflecting Parker’s tastes at the moment of playing, are profound.  I won’t go on about Parker, but would recommend a nice biography, not very scholarly but immensely readable:  Bird Lives!

The group is the Charlie Parker Quintet, including Duke Jordan on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, Max Roach on drums, and a young Miles Davis on trumpet.  I like the first take better, but both are great.  This is in fact my favorite Parker recording, for he was just as great on ballads like this as he was on hard-driving bebop.


  1. Posted April 12, 2011 at 5:15 am | Permalink

    Oh yes!

  2. daveau
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    You are just so mellow lately. Nice stuff, but makes me want to go back to sleep.

  3. bric
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    There is a 1949 JATP New York recording with Roy Eldridge and Lester Young on which Parker plays an almost completely different solo.

    Incidently Embraceable You is one of the very few standards Ornette Coleman recorded (on This is Our Music, 1960)

  4. Sigmund
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    All this appreciation for free flowing be-bop jazz makes me worry that we may need to revoke Jerry’s scientistic union membership card.

  5. Isaipriyan
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    To me, one of the most amazing human activities is musical improvisation, especially in jazz. How can somebody come up with a new and appealing variation of a theme, and play it on the spot?

    Well if you were a fan of Indian classical music, like I am of both the varieties the northern and southern, your wonderment would never cease. Because a great like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan could play the same composition every evening for a week, and deliver it differently each time. May I suggest the album Venu by Hariprasad Chaurasia and Zakir Hussain, recorded in 1974 in Fairfax, CA?

    Parker in his prime stood about ten paces ahead of everyone else, I mean everyone.

    • bric
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      I recommend anyone who can, to hear Indian classical music in concert with an Indian/Pakistani audience – the spontaneous reactions of the listeners is an integral part of the experience, and very revealing of the subtleties of the performance. A concert I particularly remember was Ustad Vilayat Khan with (I think) Alla Rakha, Zukir Hussain’s father at the Royal Festival Hall in the early 70s.

  6. Sven DiMilo
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I like the first take better, but both are great.

    I think that first take was the one that was released at the time and thereby became the ‘master’. It’s a very famous solo in jazz-education circles as well as among astute listeners like you.

  7. Jimbo
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I’m also impressed by musical improvisation but it’s not different when you think about it. You improvise many of the sentences you speak, right on the spot in real time. Some people say eloquent, unrehearsed things (Hitchens) and others blather on. Charlie Parker is a musical version of Hitch who knows how to express himself with musical phrases in place of spoken ones.

    • daveau
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Nice comparison.

    • Andrew B.
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      Yes, the difference between reciting a composition and improvising is similar giving a speech and have a conversation. Of course, you can have conversations with yourself, but it’s never as satisfying.

  8. Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    For a long time the only jazzmen I knew and loved were Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davies. Now I’ve come to know and love a few more.

    Thank you Professor Coyne, for expanding both my intellectual and musical horizons. 🙂

  9. Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    “‘Charlie Parker once said to me: ‘Jazzy, shut up and give me some heroin.'”

  10. Andrew B.
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    “How can somebody come up with a new and appealing variation of a theme, and play it on the spot?”

    1) By practicing and memorizing lots and lots of patterns. Not every phrase one hears is new. For instance, If you listen to Coltrane’s solo on the original Giant Steps, he plays the same lick on the third or fourth measure every chorus.

    2) By committing the changes to memory. By the time a performer performs a tune, he/she has probably practiced that tune for dozens of hours. There’s a collection of maybe about 150 tunes that most straight-ahead jazz guys/gals are expected to commit to memory. Some of the more hardcore players try to memorize each tune in all 12 keys. Lots of tunes share the same chords (the chords for “I got Rhythm” are simply known as “Rhythm Changes”). It’s becomes easier to solo over bebop and standards when you practiced playing over ii-V’s for years. You start to see tunes not as a set of chords but a set of shorter progressions over which you’ve already worked on. Giant Steps is an example, because it’s just ii-V7 progressions in three different keys. If you know how to solo over that progression in all keys, it becomes much simpler.

    3) Becoming intuitively and intimately familiar with your instrument. Parker once stated that there was a period in which he was practicing 15 hours a day for three years. A Indian Vina player (can’t remember her name right now) claimed she had practiced 20 hours a day since she was a child, a task which was enforced by her teacher and a long stick.

    Improvisation (at least in Jazz) is not something one can just “wing” or bullshit. The difference between someone who plays jazz and someone who makes “jazz-type noises” is thousands of hours of practice.

    As an aside, Parker used to play funny (for him) tricks on his fellow musicians. While in the middle of a tune, we would skip up and start playing a measure ahead of everyone else. What a lovable rascal.

    • Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      Yup, that’s pretty much it.

      Anybody interested in unweaving this particular rainbow should read a couple books by Jerry Coker: Elements of the Jazz Language for the Developing Improvisor and Improvising Jazz

      Understanding the basic principles is trivial. Mastering the art of doing it takes at least a lifetime….

      Think of it like chess. It’s not hard to learn the rules of the game. Anybody with even a trivial interest in it will soon learn a few standard opening moves and basic mid- and end-game strategies. Damn few go on to become grandmasters.



    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      Excellent points all.

      The story goes that a square-ish journalist once asked Miles Davis why Parker had been called ‘Bird’, and when Miles blew her (iirc) off, she informed him haughtily that she already knew the answer anyway. Miles sez (from memory; can’t find on tubes) “Oh, you got a secret? Lady, I knew Bird. He stole my money and pawned my suitcase. I used to put him to bed with the needle still in his arm and him bleeding all over the place. Put that in your article.”

      What a lovable rascal, indeed.
      Actually, everybody who knew him, including Miles, does seem to have loved him.

    • Keith from NJ
      Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Andrew has it right about improvization. There are various stages of growth of a jazz musician. First, playing jazz lines or arrangements that others have written or played. Then, playing in a “jazz-like” way (I did this for years, unfortunately for me). Finally, improvizing truly original and creative music. At least, that’s how it was with me. There is also lots of technical knowledge to be aquired, including music theory and the jazz literature (the heads and changes) as well as musicianship (instrumental technique, playing in rhythm, ear training and the like). Also, of the greatest importance is listening to lots of great music and musicians and getting to play with them. This is a life-long process and only ends when the musician is unable to play but the journey is truly worth the effort.

  11. Isaipriyan
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know how it’s done in jazz, but in India classical music, the instrument is an accessory to the voice, even when the recital is purely instrumental. melodists and even percussionists in the old style begin with voice training, and depending upon the school they work with (which could be the family tradition as in the case of most Pandits and Ustads) they branch out into melody or percussion after about 2-3 years, with percussionists branching out before the melodists. Voice is important for percussionists as well because in Indian music percussion is temporal as well as melodic. Practice regimes (as everywhere else) are brutal, until the instrument becomes an extension of the voice. Mastery of melodic scales and raga takes years and all improvisation is based on them.
    Jeff Beck never tires of saying how jazz musicians get every scale right the first time without a single false note.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    This, I like.

  13. Charles Minus
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    I remember hearing bebop clarinetist Tony Scott (probably the only person who ever fit that description) at a concert/lecture state that the two greatest musicians of all time were J. S. Bach and Charlie Parker. Listening to these takes again after several years, I have a hard time disagreeing.

  14. Annick
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    My Persian does not have a screwed up face, thank you very much.

  15. Jospin
    Posted September 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Fabulously fascinating!!
    I admit I became an avid fan of Parker quite late in Jazz life,..after absorbing Miles, Duke, Cannonball, Claude Thornhill, Peterson, Shorter, Hancock,..
    THIS tune really touched my heart!!
    I wish I had been old enough to have seen all the past departed, those geniuses, at some point in there often short careers!!

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