How High The Ornithology, or, The Contrafact

Well, I was slowed down a little by a crazy ear infection, but I’m back. Here’s my take on two tunes, which are actually kinda-sorta one tune:

  • “How High the Moon” (1940) by Nancy Hamilton (lyrics) & Norman Lewis (music)
  • “Ornithology” (1945) by Charlie Parker & Benny Harris

My take on this pair of tunes is flawed: I had to slow the backing track to make it playable with both tunes, my attempt at Bird’s famous Ornithology solo is haphazard, and the sound quality is something I’m not happy with… but I still feel like I have achieved something, compared to how I was playing six months ago. Or, rather, how six months ago I’d just picked up the horn after many years away from it!

You’ll notice there’s only one backing track, and the harmony doesn’t change. Charlie Parker, like so many wonderful artists, was a consummate thief…

Actually, this is pretty common in jazz. There plenty of contrafacts–whole tunes that are simply built upon chord changes lifted from another already-existing tune (like “Ornithology” does with the chords from the older “How High the Moon”).

But in fact, the closer you look, the more you find that most of jazz’s harmonic vocabulary seems to be built out of a limited number of harmonic-progression fragments, stitched together in different sequences. (The set of harmonic-progression fragments is finite, but not small.)

Links for further reading and listening, for those interested:

  • A great NPR segment on the story behind Charlie Parker’s tune Koko (a contrafact of Ray Noble’s tune “Cherokee”), and on the recording date that made the song famous.
  • For those interested in the notion of jazz being made up of a finite number of harmonic-progression “chunks,” I recommend John Elliot’s website (and book) Insights in Jazz, which is focused on analyzing and memorizing tunes in terms of these fragments, which Elliot (following a British theorist by the name of Conrad Cork) calls “Lego Bricks.” Here’s a discussion of the method, which is designed to facilitate easier memorization of tunes. I should note that I used a roadmap like the one shown on that page as part of my study in learning How High the Moon/Ornithology.

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