When I wrote my first textbook Jazz-Rock Voicings for the Contemporary Keyboard Player,
I included some common “shell” voicings that I heard on recordings by
jazz greats. For example, I heard Wynton Kelly and Red Garland use
voicing inversions built on the third or seventh of the chord, and I saw
how those voicings connected in different chord progressions. Later, I
discovered that McCoy Tyner often moved a fourth shape through a scale in a modal fashion.
I also loved Bill Evans’ use of cluster voicings that often had major
or minor second in them. That interval, which I call a tension,
seems to produce “warmth” in the sound and creates what I consider truly
idiomatic jazz harmony. I eventually realized that there are really
only a handful of voicing shells that are used over and over again. The
same structure can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Here are some
Click to enlarge sheet music examples; scroll down for audio clips.
1. Perfect Fourths
Ex. 1 shows a structure built with perfect fourth intervals and numerous applications of it to different types of chords.
2. Tritones and Perfect Fourths
Ex. 2 illustrates a voicing shape that is comprised
of a tritone and a perfect fourth. It is not quite as versatile as
structure in Ex. 1, but will nevertheless work with several chords.
Probably the most common usage of this voicing would be with minor 6–9,
dominant 13th, and dominant #9 chords.
3. Tritones and Major Thirds
The most common uses of this shape in Ex. 3 would
be for a dominant ninth or dominant #5 chord. I think the usefulness of
this structure improves with the addition of a half-step tension, seen in the final voicing example called “Magic Voicings.”
4. Perfect Fifths and Minor Thirds
Ex. 4 shows a voicing that includes a perfect fifth
and a minor third. This voicing is probably most useful for a major
ninth chord, although it does fit a number of other chords.
5. Magic Voicings
Ex. 5 illustrates what I call “magic voicings”—the
magic part being their inherent ability to convert into several
different chord sounds. Notice that the two different voicings here are
actually inversions of each other. The first voicing contains a
major second tension; the next contains a minor second tension. These
voicings work on the following chords: unaltered dominant 13th, altered
dominant, minor 6–9, major #11th, and half-diminished. They also serve
two modal applications: Aeolian and Phrygian. “Magic voicings” possess
the unique property that no matter what chord they are used with, they
retain the same “color.”
“Make a conscious effort to use these voicing shapes in a way that is unfamiliar to you,” says Dan Haerle.
Haerle was a revered jazz piano instructor at the University of North
Texas for 25 years until retiring from full-time work in 2002. He was
inducted into the International Association of Jazz Educators’ Hall of
Fame in 2003. An acclaimed musician in his own right, Haerle’s latest
release is Live at Luminous Sound. Find out more at danhaerle.com.