Woodwind & Brasswind Contributing Writer – Greg Vail
One of the best resources available for learning how to craft a solo is the Charlie Parker Omnibooks. Parker was a master of innovation in improvisation and beautifully developed each solo. The books contain no markings as for articulation, but transcribe many of his most famous songs and solos for study and insight into how and what he played.
Parker played alto saxophone. I believe the best key to learn from his saxophone playing is the Eb book, even if you play a Bb instrument. The way the lines lay on the instrument make most sense from the key Parker was playing in. The range also is suited best for saxophone when playing Eb parts since Parker often covered the full range of the saxophone and this creates some range issues when playing the music in C or Bb.
Much of the music is very advanced and listening to the performance is a really good idea to hear how Parker phrased and articulated the lines. New students to these books can look for CDs online or just reference tracks from YouTube to hear what he was doing. I would not suggest younger players jump in too fast on difficult material like this as it can serve as more of a frustration than help. I began playing the Omni Book in high school, after many years of saxophone study.
There are many different ways to use this book. First off I would get the Eb book, learn each piece slowly, and then work closer to the actual tempo. You will begin hearing the changes in a whole new way as you start to get the lines out without any error, at any tempo. As you play more of the pieces you will likely notice many licks you played on a previous page. Parker had certain licks he played very often. This is a good argument for patterns. As you play thru the Eb, listen for licks that reoccur and ideas that might be patterns he played often in practice.
The next thing I would suggest Bb players to do is get the Bb Omni Book and learn the songs and solos so you can play them with others in the right key. It is important that your practice can be applied outside the practice room. Bass clef is also available if you happen to play an instrument in that range.
Once you have the background of these changes on the saxophone the next step is to purchase the other two keys you don’t own yet so you end up with the Omni Book in C, Bb and Eb. There are many reasons for owning all three. Learning a favorite solo in two more keys will reveal the power and integrity of these lines.
Many jazz players suggest practicing patterns in all twelve keys and creating or finding favorite licks to learn in all keys. Few students have taken the time to do this. Playing favorite solos in three keys takes you that much closer to flexibility to play songs in different keys and develops your ability to adjust for lines that go out of the range on your saxophone. Remember, the C and Bb books will have range issues that will require some thought to play well. This is a great exercise in melodic shapes and prepares you for playing music that is not written for your individual saxophone – all very helpful.
Another interesting exercise would be transposition. We all know transposing the sax into different keys can be really hard. What if you take a song you have learned really well in Eb, and now you try playing it while reading the C book. You will develop your transposition skills on music far too hard to read in a different key to start. Both Eb and Bb instruments can do this. I would start on really easy songs first.
The entire time you are practicing transposition, learning licks in many keys, studying an improvisation expert, and allowing some complex and advanced solo lines to permeate your mind. I suggest every sax player getting the Omnibook in all three keys and using these books to really work on developing your musicianship and improvisation.