My “chords in motion” journey began when I first heard McCoy Tyner playing on John Coltrane’s classic recording A Love Supreme.
I was intrigued by the mysterious and open sound of McCoy’s voicings.
After some investigation, I learned that his structures were called
quartal voicings and were based on fourths. While quartal structures had
been played previous to Tyner, he was the one who put them in motion,
as a response to the longer harmonic rhythms found in many of Coltrane’s
Extended harmonic rhythms necessitated a method of playing
one chord for a longer duration, but while still creating interest and
movement. Quartals provided the perfect solution. Following their
introduction, other structures began to appear in jazz piano comping as
longer harmonic rhythms gained wider use. Structures built on the
diminished scale were integrated with quartals. Many of the diminished
structures contained triads, as did some quartal structures (like the
famous “So What” voicings Bill Evans played with Miles Davis). More
recently, paired triads found their way into moving chordal structures.
Here are some examples to get you better acquainted with these
1. Quartal Basics
Ex. 1a illustrates the classic “So What” voicing played by Bill Evans on the Miles Davis recording Kind of Blue. Notice the first-inversion major triads in the right hand, and the fourths in the left hand. Ex. 1b shows how dropping the top note from the right hand down two octaves results in a purely quartal voicing, with three notes in the left hand and two in the right—a frequently used configuration.
2. Pentatonics and Fifths
Pentatonics and quartal voicings are cousins. When combined as in Ex. 2a, the notes in a major pentatonic scale yield a quartal voicing. Ex. 2b shows
how perfect fourths inverted become perfect fifths, thus a quartal
voicing can be transformed into a quintal voicing. Both voicings contain
the notes of the G major pentatonic scale. In Ex. 2c, five-note voicings are expanded into six-note voicings, which can then be inverted to open and close positions.
3. Moving Quartals
Ex. 3 illustrates how you can practice five-note
quartal voicings by walking up a mode diatonically from the root. The
voicings here are derived from the D Dorian mode (major scale harmony), and can be used for Dmin7 as well as E7sus4b9, Fmaj7#4, G7sus4, Aminb6, Bmin7b5, and Cmaj7sus4.
4. Varied Intervals
Ex. 4 demonstrates how the interval between the top two notes of quartal voicings can be varied to create a melodic pedal point.
5. Mixed Voicings
In Ex. 5, the first two voicings are triads over
quartals and the second two are sets of fourths separated by a major
third. When used to harmonize melody notes, these voicings can move up
or down in any interval. One way to think of it is that they have
constant structures but variable functions.
6. Diminished Structures
Here’s a mouthful: the octatonic symmetric diminished
scale. This scale alternates whole-steps and half-steps. When a chord
tone in a diminished seventh chord is raised a whole step to a scale
tone as in Ex. 6, a major triad with a flat ninth results (F/F#).
This voicing can be moved up or down in minor thirds. It can also be
distributed between two hands for a bigger sound. Since these voicings
are derived from the diminished scale, they can be applied to the
following diminished chords: F#, A, C, and Eb, and the following dominant seventh flat nine chords: F, Ab, B, and D.
7. Major and Minor from Diminished
There are four scale-tone major triads and four scale-tone minor triads contained in the diminished scale. Ex. 7
illustrates how any of them can be used to create voicings which can be
moved up or down in minor thirds and applied to any of the chords on
the same diminished axis. The quartal-based 7b9 left hand structure can also be moved up or down in minor thirds, either together with or independently of the right hand.
8. Mirrored Diminished Voicings
Ex. 8 demonstrates that by mirroring the quartal based left hand diminished/dominant 7b9
structure in the right hand, we can create another diminished scale
based voicing which can move up or down in minor thirds. Adding more
scale tones results in varying textures.
9. Scale Tone Triad Voicings
The major and minor scale tone triad pairs found in major scale harmony can be used as voicings, as seen in Ex. 9.
These triads can move in contrary motion up and down diatonically
shifting between inversions. The resulting voicings can be applied to
all related chords from the same parent major scale.
10. Triads and Octaves
Ex. 10 illustrates moving structures featuring
triads in the left hand with octaves containing fourths and thirds.
Extrapolate this to apply to all chords built on the same parent major
11. D is for Dorian
Ex. 11 illustrates how you can navigate a ii-V-i progression in minor using quartals by using the Dorian mode a minor third above the root of the ii min7b5 chord (Cmin7 over Amin7b5), the Dorian mode a half step above the V7alt chord (Ebmin7 over D7alt), resolving to the Dorian mode built on the root of the i chord.
12. Putting Chords in Motion
The chorus of F minor blues in Ex. 12
illustrates how all these devices can be integrated into a comping
context. The coda is a descending progression of quintal voicings
alternating between minor 11th and major 7#4 chords.
Swing Both Ways
“Quartal voicings are versatile and also
harmonically ambiguous, since they don’t outline harmony using typical
guide tones like thirds or sevenths,” says pianist, composer and longtime contributor Andy LaVerne, who has performed with Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea. His latest projects include the book Chords In Motion, the CD I Have A Dream, and a series of instructional videos online at mymusicmasterclass.com.
Andy is Professor of Jazz Piano at the Hartt School of Music in
Connecticut, and on the faculty of the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops.
Find out more at andylaverne.com.