I’ve admitted before that I’m not really much of a licker. But there are some gestures that are more than licks, they’re essential idiomatic vocabulary. Thanks to SG for pointing out that I’d missed this one from my bebop posts. Well, it was sort of in there – but I don’t think I highlighted it enough.
Here’s the tail-end of the first phrase to Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee:
Bb7 (actually 9)
D F Ab C G F
It’s a beautifully balanced little snippet that goes up a dominant arpeggio from the 3rd to the 9th then reverses direction and curls back via the 13th (or 6th if you prefer) to land on the 5th. It uses every scale tone except the root and some kind of 11th in a way that compactly and clearly defines the chord. People often talk of Parker’s innovative way of working with upper extensions, and this might be the perfect example.
It originally appears over just a Bb7 chord, but it sounds good over Fm7 Bb7 too. This lick appears in everyone’s playing, varied and embellished in any number of ways.
So that’s it as a gesture to use over a V chord or a ii-V elaboration. But it can also be used, with the rhythm varied to fit, over a V7alt or a V7alt I in major or minor, by playing a tritone away:
E7 (actually 9) | EbM (or Ebm)
G# B D F# C# B | Bb
In this version, the E9 is standing in for Bb7alt. And the added note at the end (which is so natural that you almost can’t help but play it) deposits you on the 5th of the tonic that follows, so you can use this over either a major or minor cadence.
These gestures stick really easily in your ears, so the next thing to do is run through them in all the keys a few times a day to get them into your hands. Play them in context – the relevant ii Vs and V Is – and make sure to get the rhythms right on the basic versions given here. In this simplest form, the straight dominant version starts on a downbeat and the altered one starts on an upbeat.
Later on, you can experiment with ways of varying, embellishing and extending them, but get these core versions solid in your playing first. This also isn’t a bad exercise in reinforcing your knowledge of all the tritones.
At first you’ll find yourself popping Donna Lee in deliberately on gigs as a standalone gesture. After a while, it’ll start to appear naturally and as a part of longer lines. Of course, while this lick originally terminated a phrase it can be – and usually is – extended.
It’s a bit like language usage. Compare:
“There’s a chill in the air.”
“That bleak morning when we met Harry in the warehouse there was a damp musty chill to the air that seeped into our bones, but what really froze us was the desperate, hunted look in his eyes.”
Incidentally, I reckon that’s a decent analogy to bear in mind about any kind of lick.
FIND THE LADY
For a bit of fun (and also to pick up variations that people have come up with over the years), when you’re listening to a solo, play a little game of Spot the Donna Lee with yourself. There are many different ways of performing the old three-card trick. And you’ll find Parker’s Queen of Hearts hidden all over the place, even with players who you hadn’t thought were overtly beboppish.