Harmonic Motion for the Modern Jazz Pianist

A jazz masterclass from the April 2014 issue of KEYBOARD.
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French composer Claude Debussy was quoted as saying, “There is no theory. There is only sound.” In many ways, he was right. The rules of musical harmony are a wonderful thing indeed, but music is a place where it can be safe to break rules. I believe that a combination of foundation and experimentation is the best approach when it comes to musical creativity. Jazz pianists often learn typical chord progressions that can be used to play standards, compose tunes, and learn how to improvise. But how do we get beyond these typical progressions to create new sounds of our own?

1. Chord Scales

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Ex. 1 looks at chord-scale relationships. Which came first, the chord or the scale? Well, early Greek and Medieval music was based on scales. (The Greeks called them modes). Harmony occurred only as a byproduct of contrapuntal melodies. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the idea of tonal harmony or “chords” began to develop. From Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Debussy and then to jazz, we can look at harmony as a “vertical” structure. However, bebop (e.g., Charlie Parker) is often analyzed more “horizontally,” that is, in terms of its scalar melodies. So essentially, a chord is a scale . . . is a chord. You can use the same chord scale with different bass notes. For example, take the D Dorian mode (the minor scale with a natural sixth and flat seventh). If you put D in the bass, your chord is a Dmin7 (voiced with the flat third, sixth, and ninth). But when you put a G in the bass, you get a G7 (or the G Mixolydian mode). If you put an F in the bass, you get an Fmaj7#11 (or the F Lydian mode). With an A in the bass, you get an Amin7b6 (or the A Aeolian mode). And so on. So one scale can lead you in many different directions, depending on which bass note you choose.

2. Disguised Progressions

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Jazz education spends a lot of time dissecting progressions like the ubiquitous ii-V-I. But we can alter these standard chord movements in many ways by using disguised progressions, like those seen in Ex. 2. Try making the progression minor (Dmin7b5, G7b9, then Cmin maj7). Make it suspended (D7sus11, G7sus11, C7sus11). Combine the two (Dmin maj7, G7sus4b9, Cmaj7#5). Use tri-tone substitutions (Ab7, Db7, Cmaj7). Now mix and match all those! There are endless possibilities within even the “known” harmonic universe.

3. Non-Functional Harmony

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Want to go even farther into the great unknown? The first step is to get away from standard motion like the “cycle of fourths,” chromatic chordal movements, ii-V-I, or common chord substitutions, and try employing non-functional harmony like that illustrated in Ex. 3. Try using whole-steps, minor thirds, or major thirds in your progressions. Here, harmony is more about color than function.

4. More with Bass Notes

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On my latest album The Endless Mysteries, the tune entitled “Her Majesty” begins with the chords Db/F, Amaj7/E, B/D#,and Gmaj7/D. The bass motion is chromatic, but the chords on top are non-functional, as seen in Ex. 4. You can almost think of these chords as inversions. Note how different the progression sounds when played in a more traditional manner: Dbmaj7, Amaj7, Bmaj7, Gmaj7.

5. Density and Polytonality

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Before the piano was invented, counterpoint and then harmony was a product of multiple voices or instruments playing different melodic lines. These days, we have incredible access to sounds that our musical ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of. So why not explore them? As long as you’re consistent in the types of sounds you use, you can’t go wrong. Many 20th-century European classical composers have also used bitonality or polytonalityin their work, illustrated in Ex. 5. (Note: In jazz, polytonality is sometimes confused with “slash chords.” However, there’s a big difference between simply using a different bass note and truly using two keys at once).

A sought-after sideman on the international jazz scene for over two decades, George Colligan currently leads his own groups and tours with renowned drummer Jack DeJohnette. He is also Jazz Area Coordinator at Portland State University in Oregon. Colligan’s latest album The Endless Mysteries is out now. Find out more at georgecolligan.com.