Bird Blues - Harmonic Freedom In Jazz Guitar Comping

Nov 23, 2020

After moving to NYC, I was fortunate enough to get to hang with Mark Turner and ask him questions for a couple of hours. I never really got to study privately with him like a few of my friends and bandmates did, but I at least got to ask him his thoughts on music, the process, improvisation, harmony, and practice. There was MUCH talk about triads and voice leading… so you know I was happy to hear his thoughts on those topics.


I also picked up a few things indirectly from him through my friends that were studying with him showing me some of the ideas they were working on.


One of those topics was the importance of mastering the forms for the bird blues, rhythm changes, and Cherokee. The goal being that we should be able to own each of these chord progressions in all 12 keys. And for a chordal instrument like the guitar, that means being able to comp and improvise fluently in every key.


I didn’t get the chance to ask him what it was about these three sets of changes that made him say that, but I took it to heart and started setting aside additional time in my practice sessions to analyze these progressions and make sure I was able to get through all 12 keys for each. No small undertaking.


The deeper I dug into these forms, the more I started to see why he would have called out these three as being so important for jazz, bebop, and modern jazz vocabulary.


You’ve got the blues, you’ve got AABA forms, and you’ve got all kinds of common harmonic movement:


V7 - I, ii - V7 - I, I - VI7 - ii - V7, iii - VI7 - ii - V7, modulation to the IV chord, IV - iv, IV - #ivº, descending ii V7s in half steps, descending ii V7 Is in whole steps, moving from the I up to the II7…


I mean the list of essential harmonic movements to master for jazz and bebop presented in these three forms just goes on and on.


Will you ever NEED to be able to play the bird blues in B natural? Or Gb? I don’t know... I doubt it. But the ability to comp and improvise through these chord progressions and forms in any key will yield a level of proficiency that will directly effect your level of mastery of the jazz language itself and will inevitably make you a stronger player on every other tune as a result.


Before I share what I found when analyzing the form... first things first, if you’re not familiar with the bird blues, check out this video of Charlie Parker playing his tune Blues For Alice. This is probably the most famous standard written using the bird blues changes.



This may sound nothing like a traditional 12 bar blues to you if you’re not yet familiar with this particular bebop form. But in fact, it evolved from, and is directly connected to, the traditional blues chord progression.


Here’s what Bird’s chord progression looks like if you checked out Blues For Alice in the real book.



Notice that it starts on the IMaj7 chord in measure one, moves to the IV chord in measure five, and then hits a ii V and a turnaround during the final four measures. These are the anchor points of a traditional blues. Bird was just adding a lot more chord movement to move us through the form.


So how do we actually comp over this? Besides playing the exact same chords chorus after chorus and boring ourselves and the the soloists to tears, what can we do to create some harmonic freedom for ourselves to move in more interesting and creative ways while still respecting the form? First things first, before we can comp more freely, we need to make room for ourselves to move harmonically, which means de-cluttering. Like throwing away stuff from our apartment that we're not using anymore so we can make it feel more spacious.


Here’s how I boiled down the form to work on in my own practice time, and how I teach the bird blues form inside our Forms For Life course.



Check out how much more room there is now. It almost looks too simple, right? Like we can't create the sound of bebop and advanced jazz changes when things are THIS elementary?


Remember, this is just a framework.


We’re stripping away the unnecessary things so we can see the architectural blueprint everything else is growing out from. Like the steel frame of a skyscraper - completely hidden from site, but holding the entire structure up… ugly and bare on its own, but allowing for any type of design materials to be used to ornament and dress it up to create the look of the building that the architect decides to use.


From this perspective we can see some really simple ideas at play.


The form starts on the I6 chord in measure one. Then it moves through some tension that brings us to the vi chord. Almost like we’re temporarily modulating to the relative minor. If we’re playing in F major, we’re moving to D minor. Want to play the bird blues in B major? All you have to do is move from B major to G# minor and you've got the first chunk of the form under your fingers.


Then we have another pocket of tension in bar four that leads us to the IV chord in bar five. This is straight out of the traditional 12 bar blues chord progression. However instead of moving from the IV up to the #IVº as we often see in the jazz blues, we let the IV become iv… a movement we don’t see THAT often in the jazz blues, but can be heard in lines by players like Lester Young and is entirely justified and acceptable in authentic jazz vocabulary. This iv chord descends chromatically down to the ii, and that brings us to the ii V I and finally a simple measure of tension for bar 12 to act as a turnaround and bring us back to the top.


Once we see this simpler version of the bird blues - the boiled down and condensed harmonic progression - now we can very quickly move this form into any other key without too much thought. We can also add any number of tension or ‘passing’ chords inside this form to create new harmonic pathways for comping more creatively.


In our Chords For Life course, we discuss the four most traditionally accepted and useful types of chord movement - dominant, diminished, chromatic, and diatonic. We can pick any of these types of tension chords and insert them into the picture to yield more options for chord movement when comping.


For example, we can insert dominant chords into any of the ‘tension measures’ to take advantage of dominant movement that will resolve us into the next measure. Like in the key of F major, using an A7 in measure two to resolve us to the D-7 in measure three. Or we could stack dominant movement by playing Bb7 -> A7 because we know that Bb7 is the tritone sub of E7, and both of those dominant chords will want to resolve down to A7, and that will want to resolve to D-7.

See how this works? Now we’re starting to veer away from the real book changes. And since we’re thinking in terms of important destination points in the form and the areas where we can playfully create tension, we can now spontaneously come up with new harmonic pathways to mix up how we’re moving through the form.


I -> vi -> IV -> iv -> descend chromatically -> ii V I


Bada bing bada boom. That’s the Cliffs Notes version of the bird blues. Marinate on it. Soak it in. Memorize it. Tattoo it on your forearm. Do whatever you need to to internalize it. But most importantly...




Here’s one of the comping etudes for the bird blues you will find inside our Forms For Life course. This one is specifically looking at taking the chromatic movement ideas discussed in our Chords For Life course, and how we can use this type of movement within the condensed bird blues chord progression to come up with some new ways to move through the form.



So we start on our F6 chord, the I6. Then we descend chromatically down to the relative minor… the vi chord.


E-7 -> Eb-7 -> D-7


From there we descend chromatically again through the Db-7 down to C-7 which gives us the ii-7 chord that would ii V7 us to Bb7.

C-7 -> B7 -> Bb7


During the middle four measures, we primarily see just basic chromatic min7 chords moving around. Sometimes descending, other times ascending and descending to create more directions in the movement.


Finally, instead of a ii-7 V7 bringing us back to the I6 chord in measures 9-11, we see the iii-7 chord (A-7) being used as a substitute from the I6 in measure 11. And preceding that, we see a chromatic approach chord, Bb-7, where would we expect to see the C7. Again, we’re less concerned with playing every chord exactly as it’s written in the real book. We’re focusing on the main moments of harmonic importance in the form, and we’re using chromatic chords to create tension that will want to move towards, and resolve back into, the important harmonic moments.


This will free us up to comp more playfully and spontaneously, navigating through the form in a way that will allow us to comp with more variety and not feel stuck playing the exact same chords chorus after chorus after chorus.


Plus, when you’re ready to move this progression into a new key, now you’ve got the architectural blue prints laid out. You can see the basic structure hiding under the surface. You can just think about those few, important harmonic moments in the form and then dance around using any type of chord movement - dominant, diminished, chromatic, or diatonic - to help you create exciting harmonic movement that will propel us through the bird blues form and keep the soloist having a blast playing over your comping.


Give it a shot in F for a while. Explore some different ways of creating harmonic movement in this key since it’s the most common one we see this tune called in. Try to stop looking at the real book and reading the chords verbatim as a literal set of mandatory instructions. Commit to stepping up your comping to a more playful and authoritative level by, instead, focusing on the important harmonic anchor points in the form, and using tension chords to help propel you towards them. As you get better, try using this boiled down version of the form to think your way into another key. Ab is a good one to try next since Freight Trane is in that key and is another common bird blues to get called. After that, just keep forcing yourself to come back to the condensed harmonic progression and using it to get into new keys. See if you can get through all 12 keys. Even if you never see a bird blues in some keys at a single gig for the rest of your life, the ability to transpose this form, to keep up with it in any key, and to be able to control harmonic tension and resolution in any key will help you step up your level of mastery with the jazz and bebop vocabulary.


Happy Practicing!



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