Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory memorising Practice Routine Standards

‘Harmony with LEGO Bricks’ available once more

I am delighted to announce that the classic book, Harmony with LEGO Bricks (Conrad Cork), is available for purchase once more. This book first appeared in 1985 and is now available for the first time as a PDF e-book. Packed with over 300 pages of guidance.

It is no exageration to say that this book changed my jazz performance life. It clearly explains the differences in approach needed between classical and jazz musicians and, therefore, how teachers should teach and students should listen to understand jazz and improve their jazz improvisation.

The author, Conrad Cork, died this year. I worked with Conrad to help him bring out the 2008 print-edition of his book. In 2009 I published my own book, Insights in Jazz, which builds on the method that Conrad proposed for hearing and memorising jazz harmonic progressions.

I am delighted to say that Conrad’s wife, Ali Cork, has given me permission to publish this 2021 PDF e-book edition of Conrad’s book. There is also a limited number of copies of the print-edition of Harmony with LEGO Bricks remaining for sale on a first-come-first-served basis from Jazzhouse Records.

Long may his legacy continue.

arranging Harmony reharmonisation

Coming to an arrangement

A friend of mine recently commissioned me to write an arrangement of Happy Birthday. It could use any instruments that he plays and he would be playing all the parts in a multi-track recording. The result was to be a present for his friend and therefore had to complete in two weeks. This article is about the process I adopted to meet these constraints and the resulting arrangement.

Listen to the draft recording made by ace London reedsman, Shaun Thompson, in his garden shed using Garage Band. A studio resording will be coming soon!

EDIT: Studio recording is now available with screech trumpet added on the end.

The plan

The instruments available were the usual collection of clarinets from Eb soprano down to Bb bass together with the the usual saxophones from soprano through alto down to tenor, but not including the baritone sax, because he no longer has one.

I decided that, since no rhythm section were available, and there was no baritone sax, I would have to rely upon the bass clarinet to carry the bass line.

Happy Birthday, is eight bars long and originally in 3/4. I decided to write it in 4/4 for ease of conventional jazz swing writing. In terms of the form of the arrangement I chose:

  • A: Starting with a duo rendition with Bb clarinet and bass clarinet. I wanted to practice my counterpoint writing.
  • B: Building to a quartet rendition with a couple of supporting saxes. Since only woodwind were available, I was trying to contrast the clarinets with the saxophones, in the way that you might contrast woodwind with brass in a big band.
  • C: Building again to a saxophone soli using five saxes supported by bass clarinet bass line (i.e. sextet).
  • Some sort of DS al Coda to make maximum use of material already written. Probably dropping back to the quartet section.
  • Some sort of Introduction and Ending (Coda) sections using the same material as each other, to be determined, but derived from the Happy Birthday theme.

Eight bars is not very long for a tune, so I repeated sections A and B. This makes good use of material written, while giving the listener the familiarity of something they have already heard.

Listen to the draft recording. That was the plan, but what about the harmony?


Happy Birthday is a pretty boring tune and the conventional harmony even worse, so I decided to do some reharmonisation. On the score, I wrote the chords on the bass clarinet part, just for somewhere to put them and so I could remember what I was doing when writing the other parts.

The usual chords, in F, might be:

  • F | C7 | C7 | F |
  • F7 | Bb | F C7 | F |

In order to add some interest, I dispensed with the return to chord I at bar four with a diatonic substitution of VI (relative minor) and appropriate approach chords.

Once at chord VI (bar 4), I took the opportunity to drop to Vm7 at bar 5 (usually thought as the II to V/IV ) via a bVIdim7, like Jobim did in Wave and also Corcovado (which I had been playing a lot at the time of writing this arrangement).

I dislike the bit at bar 6 where the melody is traditionally a suspension on chord IV. So I used sideslipping ‘II Vs’ to dispense with chord IV altogether.

My resulting chords are:

  • F | G-7 / C7 B7 | Bb7 A7 | D-7 Dbo7 |
  • C-7 F7 | B-7 E7 | A-7 D7 G-7 C7 | F |

That is pretty much the harmony that I used for the A and B sections. I chose to modulate up a minor third between these sections (A is in F and B is in Ab) to add more interest.

When it came to the C section, The harmonic framework is essentially the same, but I added yet more substitutions to recognise that this as the climax of the arrangement.

If you haven’t already, listen to the draft recording.

A section: duo counterpoint

A section is a duo. Clarinet takes the tune and bass clarinet weaves a counterpoint line.

I decided to write the A section as a statement of the melody only using two instruments (see the image above). This is a bit like when a horn plays the melody with only string bass. The approach as as follows:

  • Write the melody for the clarinet in swing phrasing using characteristic bebop mechanisms such as enclosure and chromatic approach tones.
  • Write the countermelody for the bass clarinet in the style that a string bass might play.
    • Because this is not a duo over a walking bass, the bass clarinet part has to include roots, especially when they are not in the upper part.
    • The bass clarinet line should phrase along with the upper part, but supplies complimentary movement when the upper part temporarily halts.

Listen to the draft recording.

B section: homophonic arrangement

For the B section I chose to add two saxes to the clarinet. I used the bass clarinet to state an independent walking bass line. The clarinet carries the melody, as before, but in the new key. The two saxes add homophonic chords under the melody, meaning that they move in time with the melody. The voicings used for the saxes are like bebop pianist ‘Bud Powell shell voicings’ consisting mostly of roots and third or root and seventh. Occasionally, I uses third and seventh and relied on the bass clarinet for the root.

For variety. at the end of the first time, I used the turnaround common in bebop times I bIII bVI bII as can be found in Tadd Dameron’s Ladybird.

B section is a quartet. Saxes join the clarinets.

Listen to the draft recording.

C section: a linear approach

The C section is the sax soli and is the climax of the arrangement. Five saxes led by soprano sax are arranged over the faithful bass clarinet, playing the role of the string bass, as ever.

A linear approach was taken voicing the saxes:

  • Firstly I reharmonised the chord progression again. ensuring that sufficient landmarks remained such as chord I in bar 3.
  • Next I composed a melody for the soprano sax lead. I had in mind the fantastic sax solis of the arrangement in the Thad Jones big band arrangments.
  • I identified the harmonic arrival points where the melody and chord changes line up. And then decided what voicings to use.
    • I decided to start with upper structures which have a supporting tritone in the lower two saxes and usually only apply to dominant 7 chords only.
    • The B-7b5 is voiced as rootless D-/G7.
    • Bb7 is voiced as rootless C/Bb7 creating Bb13(#11).
    • A-7 is voiced as F/A7 creating A7alt. I decided a dominant 7 would be more fun here, than the planned A-7.
    • Abdim7 is voiced as rootless E/G7 upper structure.
  • Between the A7 and Abdim7 chords, a linear approach was taken:
    • for each part, choose a note that lead to the next note, looking for contrary motion to give the impression of part independence (this is not block chording per se).
    • it does not matter whether the resulting notes form a conventional chord; the ear will hear it a making sense as routes between harmonic desinations on the main beats of the melody.
C section sax soli part 1
  • This same linear approach was taken with the sixteenth notes in bars 2-4, ensuring the whole sax section has a good chord voicing on the quarter-note beats where the chords change:
    • G-7 voiced in fourths A D G C F, a sort of G-11.
    • Db7 voiced as rootless upper stucture Eb/Db making Db13(#11).
    • C7alt voiced as rootless upper stucture Gb/C7making C7(b9, #11).
    • Gb7 voiced as rootless upper stucture Ab/Gb7making Gb13(#11).
    • F voiced as rootless fourths, E A D G C.
  • Between each of these destination chords, there are three sixteenth notes which were chosen as before using a linear approach, seeking contrary motion. In addition, repeated notes were also avoided because woodwind instruments find them hard to articulate at speed.

Listen to the draft recording.

The same approach was taken with the second half of the C section, the analysis of which is left as an exercise to the reader:

C section sax soli part 2

Stitching it all together

The three main sections (A, B and C) were written, I just needed to glue it all together.


I decided to write an introduction based on a fragment of the melody going through a few keys. Because I had chosen a modulation of a minor thirds between sections A and B, I decided that the minor thirds would be used again. The transitory keys implied by the harmony are B and D leading to F ready for the A section.

The melodic fragment I chose was from bar 7 of the melody where the words “birth-day to” occur:

The introduction is based on a fragment of the melody rising through keys a minor third apart.

I imagined that if this were arranged for vocal choir with words, the opening would go: “birth-day to, birth-day to, birth-day to … A Happy Birth-day …”. By choosing a three-beat phrase and changing key every three beats, I hoped to confuse the listener from the outset regarding meter and key.

I chose the biggest band the arrangement uses for the opening so as to be stark contrast with the duo to follow immediately after. The voicings I chose this time were drop-2s with the soprano lead doubled on the second tenor sax. For extra crunch I tonicized the minor 7 initial minor 7 chord by given them major 7s but falling to minor 7s on the second chord of each phrase.

The final chord of the opening spreads out to an upper structure for C7alt as Ab triad over C7.

Listen to the draft recording.

Joining section B to C

I need a way of joining the B section into the Sax Soli C section while also modulating from Ab back to F. I decided to re-use the appropriate 3-beat phrase from the introduction which also served to say “listen up, the sax soli is about to start!” Or maybe just “Birth-day to …”:

The modulaiton from section B to C uses a fragment of the introcution's material.


The Outro is a copy of the intro, but with the extra suprise that it starts a bar early before the melody has completed. The whole arrangement ends on a chord I7 with clarinet added above the soprano sax to mimic the lead trumpet of a big band. Seven horns playing at the same time, the biggest chord of the whole arrangement. Where is Animal from the Muppets when you need him on the drum kit?

Listen to the draft recording. For more, see my link tree. If you like this article, please like, comment, share etc.

Further reading

  • Dobbins, B, Jazz Arranging and Composing: A Linear Approach, Advance Music, 1986.
Barry Harris block chords Jazz Books Jazz Theory Standards

Unusual voicings by ‘borrowing’ in the 6/dim scale

A few years ago, I was on my way out after playing a trio gig in Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar, when I was stopped by a member of the audience. “What was that chord you were playing in Satin Doll? It sounded great, I’ve never heard it before.” This is not an everyday experience for me. I had been working on Barry Harris movements using 6/dim scales. I’ll explain what was going on.

There are two aspects to the 6/dim scale approach as espoused by Barry Harris. One is that it allows you to move chord voicings even when the chord progression is not changing. The other is that you can create non-standard chord voicings that sound great and make sense to the ear within the harmonic progression. This article shows how both of these can work by applying the techniques to Duke Ellington’s, Satin Doll.

The usual approach

The first four bars are usually thought of as:

  • D-7 G7 | D-7 G7 | E-7 A7 | E-7 A7

These in turn might be thought of as ‘two goes’ approaches to cadences which never resolve. For the purposes of voicing and improvisation, we can take a reductionist approach; they can be thought of as mere II V progressions in C and D (even though the E-7 A7 feels like III VI7).

I’ve heard people say, “do we have to play that boring tune?” In my opinion, they are limited by conventional thinking; there is a lot to explore if you know how.

How might we voice the melody in the first four bars if we were playing with a bass player and wanted to use block chording to grab the audience at the outset? We’re only looking at options using 6/dim scales for this article.

Referring to the example above, I’ve sketched out the melody (rhythm simplified for block chording and notation purposes) and included a bass line which a bass player might play during the head.

Listen here.

The block chords are using drop-2 voicings. But how do we know what notes to include in the chords?

For the first two bars I have dispensed with the G7 chords and am treating everything as D-7. The 6 chord which represents the same notes as D-7 is F6. The notes are D F A and C. The diminished chord is always a semitone below, so in this case is Eo7. The two chords interleave together to make an 8-note scale:

Therefore, the 6/dim scale to use is F6/Eo7:

  • F A C D interleaved with
  • E G Bb Db, gives
  • F G A Bb C C# D E which can be started on D to give
  • D E F G A Bb C C#

The Eo7 is the same as C#o7 which sound like a rootless A7b9 which is V of D-7. So we can harmonise the melody using only this scale and alternate the block chords D-7 and C#o7.

You can think of there being a resolved side of the scale, the 6 chord (D F A C) and an unresolved side, the diminished 7 chord (C# E G Bb).

You don’t need to first think of the F6/dim scale and convert it to D-7/dim scale; after a while you can go straight there. But the point is, any chord can be represented by a 6/dim scale, so we start our explanation with a 6 chord.

Bars 3 and 4 are the same but up a tone. G6/F#o7 represents E-7/D#o7. It is the same scale.

That’s it. That’s how to apply 6/dim scales in the simplest way. You’ll see this all over the place. It is most often applied to melodies with a lot of diatonic scalar movement.

But wait a minute. In the arrangement so far, all the parts are moving in parallel. Every other chord is a diminished 7. Doesn’t it sound a bit … old fashioned? Like Glenn Miller, but without the big band. How can we spice the voicings up a bit? The remainder of this article shows how.

Borrowing notes for extra spice

This example takes the same bass and melody, the same chord analysis and the same resulting 6/dim scales. But we introduce the concept of ‘borrowing’. In the first example, each chord is either the 6 chord (eg F6 represents D-7) or the dim7 chord. There was complete separation at any time in the bar. And we hear a I V I effect as explained above. But what if we allow chords to borrow notes from the scale that are not in their chord? Restricting ourselves to the right scale guarantees the right sound for the harmony of the moment, but allows more dissonance to be added.

Looking below, the first chord uses two internal ‘diminished’ notes in the first chord (C# and A#=Bb). They are tied to the notes needed in the next chord which is the diminished chord.

Listen here.

Try playing it. Do you like the extra temporary crunch? The point is that it is fleeting, our ear knows what it means because it all resolves as expected.

It’s actually easier to play than the first example above. Your right hand thumb and index finger reach a little further for the first chord, but then stay there for the second.

Note that we don’t need to name the first chord. It has notes D, F, A#, C# and A natural. It is the kind of thing you often see publishers of transcriptions and Real Books trying to label precicely. I expect they would call it A7(no 7, b9, b13)/D or some such nonsense.

The point is, we are thinking D-7 with some appropriate dissonant passing notes that flow easily between chord tones because they are in our 6/dim scale.

I have only illustrated one example of borrowing notes. I have done the same on bars 3-4. You should experiment with your own borrowings from the other half of the 8-note scale. You can borrow as many notes as you wish, you need to use your ear and taste as your guide.

Each note you borrow means you have one less of the original chord tones (assuming you have limited fingers and we stick to four-note voicings). It is usually best to borrow no more than one or two, because otherwise there is little left to be dissonant with.

Tonic minor and unaltered dominants

How else might we approach our challenge? Remember, all of these approaches can be applied in real-time without telling the others in the band in advance. So it is worth working a few of them up for your next gig.

In the first example, we dispensed with the G7 in bars 1-2 leaving just D-7. Here we will do the opposite. Keeping the G7, we look for a 6 chord to represent it. The answer it D-6 which looks and sounds like a rootless G9. The notes being B, D, F and A. Or D, F, A, B when inverted to become D-6.

Listen here.

Right, so we have our 6 chord and therefore the scale we will use is D-6/C#o7. There is only one internal note different in the chord from the first example. The C of D-7 has become B of D-6. If the bass player plays a G in the bass half was through the bars 1 and 2, D-7 sounds like G9sus and D-6 sounds like G9. Nobody gets hurt.

Tonic minor maj 7

Starting with the previous example above, we can borrow notes like we did before. This time, D-6 becomes a tonic minor sounding chord, D-(maj7, 9).

For added spice, I have tweaked the diminished chord by raising one of its notes a tone: Db becomes Eb. This is justified by remaining within the same diminished scale, but it is not in the 6/dim scale and therefore should not be in this article! Remember we are using the D-6/C#o7 scale which is the scale made up of these chords combined. Mark Levine does this in his block chording in his books, but worth noting that it is not using 6/dim scales.

Listen here.

Altered dominant chords

So, what happens if our song has an altered dominant 7 chord. What 6/dim scale should we use? The answer is, treat it as chord VII of a jazz melodic minor scale.

For example, G7altered can be viewed as taking an Ab melodic minor scale because it has all the notes of the G altered scale:

  • G, Ab, Bb, (Cb=)B, (Db=)C#, Eb, F

But we are all about 6/dim scales, we choose the Ab-6/Go7 scale and we get one extra note, E. Basically, the scale gives us both natural and b13. We don’t have to use the E natural if we want a fully altered sound.

We need a concrete example. I decided to modify the melody of Satin Doll to allow altered dominants to be demonstrated. See below. Bar 1 is as before using D-7. Bar 2 the melody is raised a semitone and harmonised using the Ab-6/Go7 scale with borrowing.

But notice that something is different here from using 6/dim scales to represent major 6 or minor 6 or 7 chords. There is no clear resolved and unresolved side. The scale for G7 alt is Ab-6/Go7:

  • Ab (Cb=)B Eb F interleaved with
  • G Bb (Db=)C# E

There is no natural 5th. The other three fundamental chord tones are distributed between the two chord or sides of the scale.

In this example arrangement, it sounds like each bar is rising by a semitone, but only the melody is. The bass line and basic chords stay the same. It’s an illusion like an Escher staircase.

Listen here.

Again, this all fits with the original song harmonic framework. No need to warn the bass player in advance. Just watch his face as he hears it the first time!

If you have enjoyed this article and would like to see more, dont forget to let me know by liking and sharing and leaving a comment.

I’ve written related articles on this subject that you might like:

For more, see my link tree.

Further reading

  • Berkman, D, the Jazz Harmony Book, Sher Music, 2013.
  • Levine, M, The Jazz Piano Book, Sher Music, 1989.
Practice Routine

Achieving Expert Levels of Performance

I’ve been thinking about writing one of my articles about jazz harmony, may be transcribing some tricky jazz piano arrangement by Bill Evans or Kenny Barron and then analysing and explaining what they were were doing and may have been thinking. But then I started reading about the way we improve our performance skills and how important it is to leave our comfort zones in order to grow. So, I decided to do just that and write a blog about a 10,000-foot view of the path to becoming a better jazz pianist, based on some scientific research, of course. Further reading is suggested at the end of this article.

If you find this article useful, please comment, like and share. For more, see my link tree.

Is talent a myth?

A paper by Ericsson in 1993 suggested that deliberate practice can be used to achieve epert levels of performance across a variety of fields. This is where the famous “10,000 hours rule” idea made famous in a book by Malcom Cladwell came from. The original scientific paper reported dispassionately on their findings. Cladwell’s book went beyond the evidence to claim that talent is a myth and anyone can become an expert performer if they put the hours in.

You can read about about the clash between these two authors in 2014 and draw your own conclusions about whether talent is a myth and persistant, directed hard work is all that is needed to perform at expert levels. However, the key takeaway is that intelligent practice can lead to dramtic improvement in performance. Efforts to debunk the original science failed in 2019. As one of the authors said: “Do I believe that practice is everything and that the number of hours alone determine the level reached? No, I don’t,” he said, adding that the quality of practice, teachers and parental support all matter too. “But I still consider deliberate practice to be by far the most important factor.”

Levels of mastery

There is another book by J De Flander (2019) that proposes there are four levels of mastery:

  • Novice
  • Amateur
  • Expert
  • Pathfinder

His premise is that through the harnessing of passion, persistence and ‘deep practice’, we can achieve greatness. This certainly seems to be the way musicians reach expert level. More below about the levels.


This is a discovery phase. Perhaps you can remember the first time you pressed a piano key and the fascination you had with your ability to make musical sounds. The emphasis at this stage is on play. You will get better while ever it remains fun and you are discovering new things: how to make higher and lower notes; how to make more than one sound at once; how to make louder or softer sounds. There is an awful lot that can be learned by play, and this always remains true. There is no need for a teacher since curiosity drives us on and simplicity means that we can both experiment and evaluate by ourselves. All that matters is that it makes us feel good. But if your interest is not constantly triggered, you will drop out and progression to the next level will not happen.


You have found a way to motivate yourself. At this next level, there is a lot to be gained by repetition. By repeating something we like the sound of, we rapidly achieve an acceptable level of performance. Progress is in proportion to the amount of time we spend practicing. Its an exciting time. Many school children have been through this. Teachers often treat all their pupils the same at this level telling them to practice what they consider to be the syllabus for mastering their particular instrument.

For jazz piano, this is more difficult since there is no agreed syllabus. However, those interested might want to check out the book by Santisi which claims to be based on the Berklee College jazz piano syllabus.

However, there is a risk of progress slowing down; you keep practicing but improvement is no longer directly proportional to time spent. Once acceptable performance has been reached, a new approach is needed. To reach the Expert level, we need to learn to push ourselves in the direction we individually need.


Those at the expert level have discovered ‘deep practice’. Objective assessment of performance against an ideal model is used to identify what the performer lacks and to design practice routines to remidy. This is either done by a teacher or the performer themselves.


According to De Flander, these are the top three percent in their field. They have absorbed all the available knowledge and have a unique style. They need to find their own way of moving forward, perhaps by innovating in their field or by helping others.

Doing, not knowing

The evidence is that knowing a shed load of stuff about how performance is achieved does not make you any better a performer. It does not matter how many books you own about jazz harmony and jazz improvisation if you never practice. Equally, there is little benefit in practicing stuff which someone who has never met you tells you to practice because your practice needs to be tailored to you. This is why, beyond Amateur level, you cannot achive expert jazz performance by using ‘cookie cutter’ exercises from books or YouTube videos. The key to success is finding out what you as an individual need to improve and fixing it. And this is hard to do alone, so I recommend you seek out a mentor who knows about jazz performance. You might well need different teachers for different aspects of your playing, e.g. one to tell you how to play your instrument with the least physical strain and another to tell you how to perform jazz.

Application to jazz performance

As mentioned above, we need to develop skill through practice. But we first need to identify what skills we lack and then devise a practice plan to achieve our goals. But how do we discover what skill we lack? The best way is to have a teacher, coach or mentor who can evaluate your performance objectively. They should be experts themselves since they need to compare their ‘mental representation’ of what good performance sounds like to our current execution abilities.

As we become more expert ourselves, we learn to use recordings of the jazz masters to create our own ‘mental representation’ of authentic jazz. Using this model, we continuously self assess and edit our performance to be as authentic as we can manage, remembering that every performance is a ‘report on work in progress’, so we should not be ashamed to perform. This is not classical music where each performance sounds very much like the last; jazz is very different and should be assessed as such.

I would suggest the aspiring expert level jazz musician make practice plans along the following lines:

  • Develop skilll through practice: Set clear goals and practice things outside of your “comfort zone”, e.g. faster tempos, unfamiliar keys. However, ensure that you succeed 50-80% of the time in order to ensure that you keep motivated. For example, if right now you find it hard to play everything in all keys, either simplify what you are practicing or play it in fewer keys for now and introduce a key a week or a key a month; whatever is right for you. Again, this has to be tailored to you, not off-the-shelf exercises.
  • Spend lots of time listening to the masters. You need to do this in order to develop your ‘mental representational’ model of authentic jazz. It is this that you will use to edit your performance to sound more authentic as you go. I find that if I listen a couple of hours’s good jazz CDs in the car, my playing is instantly improved for a while without any further practice because my mental model of authentic jazz has been refreshed.
  • Learn the territory: Chess Masters are able to play blindfold multiple games at a time. This is because they are totally familiar with the territory. The easily memorise the board positions because they have seen the component they are made of many times before. It is the same for jazz performers playing jazz standards. You can serve your 10,000 hours learning hundreds of jazz standards until you know the common chord progression components that you encounter, or you can read my book where it is all laid bare. I spent the hours analysing more than a couple of hundred songs so you don’t have to.
  • Gap analysis: Use impartial assessment to identify the gaps between your performance and authentic jazz. Perhaps record yourself and listen later or find an expert mentor or coach.

It has been said that there are four levels of mastery: Novice, Amateur, Expert and Pathfinder. Most performers manage to progress from Novice to Amateur by sustaining their enjoyment of playing with the newfound skill. Many languish at the Amateur level for lack of a mentor. A teacher or even YouTube videos can show what to spend time practicing and allows the student to reap dividends as the rate of improvement seems proportional to time spent practing at this level.

However, reaching the next level, Expert, requires “deep practice.” Either the student needs to be mature enough to analyse their own performance, compare it with a clear mental representation of a great performance and devise a practice plan to bridge the gap, or they need a mentor to help assess their performance and adivise them what to do. This article has focussed on how to move from amateur to expert level since this is where most jazz players need help.

The top level of performance (Pathfinder or Innovator) is much more up to the individual. This level is about finding your own path, and while a coach or mentor would undountedly be useful, it will be much more difficult to find one who has the eperience you are looking for as you strike out on your own.

If you have found this article useful, please like and share. For more, see my link tree.

Further reading

Barry Harris Harmony Jazz Theory melodic minor reharmonisation Standards

The truth about Stella

You may have looked at the standard, Stella By Starlight, and wondered what horrors lurk beneath those chords. This article is a deep dive into various versions to explain what is going on.

The song, written in 1944 by Victor Young as horror film music for The Uninvited (A composer and his sister discover that the reason they are able to purchase a beautiful gothic seacoast mansion very cheaply is the house’s unsavory past). He also wrote Ghost of a Chance, My Foolish Heart and Beautiful Love. But this is by far the most sophisticated of the song he wrote which became jazz standards.

It is 32 bars long as is most common for jazz standards, but it is ‘through composed’ meaning every section is different, so I call the form ABCD (8-8-8-8). There is little of the usual repetition found in AABA or ABAC songs.

We’ll look at the song in Bb major, as it is most commonly played and seen in jazz real books. Here is my playlist of recordings of this song to compare.

In the beginning …

As usual, I don’t have the original sheet music to refer to, but I do have Spotify, YouTube and an internet connection, so I set out to find the earliest recording I could and transcribe the changes. It was the Frank Sinatra recording in the key of G from 1947, arranged by his musical director, Axel Stordahl. I show those chord changes here transposed to Bb for ease of comparison with other versions.

The melody is much more modern than most jazz standards.

  • It contains a lots of suspensions so that the melody does not directly fit the chords underneath until it resolves (eg B section bars 1 and 5).
  • It does not finish on the tonic. So, there is less of a feeling of conclusion than usual.
  • There are a lot of chord extensions emphasised by the melody (eg maj 7, 9, 11). See the C section in particular.

And the harmony is more modern than most jazz standards. The tonic chord is not stated until bar 9. The chords for each 8-bar section are all different.

The A section

The first chord is Bb dim7 or chord I dim7 and lasts for two bars. This is a common sub for chord I in major keys and adds tension and I’ve written about that before. It works particularly well here becasue the melody note (A) is the major 7 — a very pretty sound. It is also the same notes as bIII dim7 which beautifully voiceleads to a cadence home (II V I).

However, the second chord (bar 3) is F7 (V) and also lasts for two bars. The third chord is Bb7 (V7/IV), also two bars and in bar 7, we arrive at Eb (IV). And then in bar 8 there is an overrun to Ab7 (bVII7) which acts as a ‘backdoor’ dominant to Bb (I) to begin the B section.

So, the original harmony of the A section is really quite simple. Just five chords in 8 bars; it would be relatively easy to play in other keys without writing it out.

If we break the F7 and Bb7 down into II-V pairs (C-7 F7; F-7 Bb7), we keep the bebop police happy and there is no impact on the functional harmony. This also would allow the bIII dim7 to II move described above. And the result is pretty much what you would find in any real book for this tune. Except for the first chord.

Perhaps diminished chords were considered more difficult to analyse than other chord qualities because it it not obvious that they belong to a particular key. Let the meddling begin! If you don’t have a bunch of different things to play on a diminished chord and that chord lasts for two bars and the tempo is slow, you are in trouble. But if you substitute the diminished chord for a dominant 7b9 chord, you can break that dominant 7 chord down into a minor II-V pair, soloing over the changes is easier and bebop police won’t come a callin’.

Bud Powell and Barry Harris played Bb dim7. But most jazz artists since the time of Miles Davis play the Eø A7b9, including Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. So, I am not with Barry Harris to insist that it is wrong. Things move on, but it is incumbent on the student to understand where the chords come from and how to connect them smoothly.

But something beautiful in the original composition has been lost. The extremely pretty A melody note as major 7 against Bb dim7 has become 11 against E-7b5 (quite cool) but a mere root against A7b9. Meh …

Harmonic regions

In jazz standards in major keys, we expect tunes to make frequent borrowings from keys IV and V as well as all three relative minors.

This is because they are the closest keys on cycle of fifths and, therefore, have the least different keys signatures:

  • I: Bb; G- (two flats)
  • IV: Eb; C- (three flats)
  • V: F; D- (one flat)

Stella By Starlight harmony does visit all of these harmonic regions, albeit briefly.

My spirits were slightly lifted by listening to the Erroll Garner recording from the late 60s/early 70s where he actually plays a major II-V (E-11 A13). He has smashed us into the key of D for the first two bars, four keys sharper round the key cycle. This harmony is so bad it is good!

Was it deliberate or did he not know what he was doing? All I know is he avoids all m7b5 chords except one (A-7b5 in the B section) in the whole piece, so something was going on. The obvious advantage is that soloing is even easier. Maybe this is part of his secret of sounding so happy on everything? And it is such a relief after trying to mimick Bill Evans perfect harmony and voiceleading.

Melodic minor harmony

One question that arises about the substitution of Bb dim7 with A7b9 is, why pick that chord, rather than one of the other three options that share the notes of Bb dim7 (C7b9, Eb7b9, Gb7b9). One answer might be that A7 imples Dm (1 flat), just one key away from Bb major (2 flats) on the key cycle (see above) whereas C7b9 imples Fm (4 flats), Eb7b9 implies Abm (7 flats), Gb7b9 (F#7b9) implies Bm (2 sharps).

However, I think a more compelling reason is that melodic minor harmony was being used in jazz at the time of this Miles Davis group reharmonisation. Bear with me, we need to take a bit of a detour.

It was a different way of thinking about harmony. Rather than using modal mixture (aka modal interchange) to borrow from modes with the same root as the key of the song, you pick the chord quality that you are wanting and then use the meodic minor (key) it appears in to determine how to play it.

The melodic minor scale (ascending) is used because it contains several useful chords that appear in jazz standards a lot and are not available in major harmony:

  • I: m(maj7)
  • II: 7sus(b9)
  • III: maj7(#5)
  • IV: 7(#11)
  • The chord on degree V is not generally used.
  • VI: m7b5(#9)
  • VII: 7(alt)

It was a new way of thinking and takes a while to get to grips with, but has a massive payback. Notice that there are different kinds of dominant 7 chords on three of the scale degrees, which is super useful. There are no avoid notes in melodic minor harmony, so it can be a lot easier to use than conventional harmony. This is the direction in which contemporary jazz went and Mark Levine’s excellent Jazz Piano book describes that aspect of contemporary American jazz very well.

But back to the opening of Stella. Of the four possible dominant chords, why A7b9 to replace Bb dim7? I think it is because it is chord VII of Bb melodic minor which means it can be treated as an ‘Altered’ chord. The difference between Bb melodic minor and Bb major is just a single flat (Db rather than D natural), which makes it feel super close.

I don’t know who did the reharmonisation of Stella for the Miles Davis recording, but I bet they were thinking melodic minor harmony.

Applying the same logic to the preceding E-7b5 chord, using the list of chord types above, we have to use the melodic minor where E is the root of chord VI: G melodic minor. This has one flat (Bb) and one sharp (F#) and so feels a bit more remote. But nontheless, we hear pianists such as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett treating their opening chord like this (with Bb and F# in their voicings.) It’s the modern way. Just don’t tell Barry Harris.

Other chords in Stella which would be ideal for this treatment are:

  • Eb-(maj7): Use Eb melodic minor.
  • G7+: if treated as G7(alt) could make use of Ab melodic minor.
  • Eb7(#11): treat as Bb melodic minor.
  • A-7b5: could be treated as C melodic minor.
  • D7b9: could be treated as D7(alt) and therefore Eb melodic minor.

The B section

In this section we see a couple of minor plagal cadences (IVm I) in the original. Something else that the bebop police felt is necessary to replace in order to make everything II-V based. As an aside, the chord progressions V I and IVm Im are negative harmony reflections of each other and therefore resolve equally well in terms of classical voiceleading.

Bars 2-3 in the Frank Sinatra arrangement would be G-6 to D-7. Usually replaced with E-7b5 A7b9 | D-7. Note that Barry Harris often says, the beboppers thought of E-7b5 as G-6 with the 6 in the bass. So it is the A7 that is the interloper here!

Bars 4-5 in the Sinatra arangement have Bb-6 to F/C. This is IVm I in the key of F. It feels like the song has modulated by stealth (Stella Stellar Stealth?) to key V.

So far we have seen harmony in Bb, Eb, D- and F. Four of the six related keys. The A-7b5 D7b9 below is from G-, so we are just looking for harmony from the key of C- to complete the set.

The bebop police don’t like inversions and we know they don’t like minor plagal cadences, so what do they play here. Well a backdoor cadence is the answer. Bb-6 sounds like a rootless Eb9 so it works well if we sub Eb7 (bVII7) here. So, real books usually have Eb7 F at this point.

Bar 6 is Bb dim7 (which sounds like a rootless C7b9) in the Sinatra arrangement dropping down to the A-7b5 in bar 7.

However, some elegant versions of Stella replace the bar 4 approach to F with something more subtle and then have a turnaround in F before moving on:

  • B-7b5 Bb-6 |
  • F/A D-7 | G-7 C7 | A-7b5 | D7b9 ||

The D7 acts like a pivot chord acting as both V7/II in F and V7/III in Bb.

Others still (eg Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine album) replace bar 6’s Bb dim7 with E-7b5 A7b9, the chords they use at the beginning of sections A and D to replace the diminished chords.

The C section

This section feels like a bridge to me. It is not clear cut, but it is contrasting in as much as the harmonic rhythm returns to one chord every two bars. Also, the melody is largely focused on extensions on main beats and sustained, rather than chord notes:

  • Bar 1 G7: Eb = b13
  • Bar 3 C-7: F – = 11
  • Bar 5 Eb-: D = maj7
  • Bar 7 Bb: C = 9

The C section starts with a surprise G7+ where we are expecting a G-7. The G7 makes a chain of dominants with the preceding D7 and propels us towards C-7 as a V7/II in Bb. Or you could argue that this is the V I in C- we were waiting for.

And the home key of Bb is confirmed with the last two chords of this section Eb-(maj7) Bb/D (IVm I). As we know by now, the bebop police don’t like minor plagal cadences, so that replace the Eb- chords with Ab7#11 making it another backdoor cadence.

There is a reason that the original chord at the end of the C section is Bb/D. It’s voiceleading using the bass part into the first chord of the final section.

It is common for jazz players to briefly play chord I dim7 as a suspension of the harmony on the last chord of the C section. It is a nod the the original chord at the beginning of the A and D sections and it sounds great with the C melody note being the maj 9 of Bb dim7. Remember, the extensions to a dim7 chord come from the dim7 chord a semitone below.

The D section

Sometimes the form of Stella is said to be ABCA. The first two bars of the D section are the same as the A section, so it feels like the longed-for reprise the listner is expecting, but 75% of the section is new.

The Sinatra arrangement has Db dim7 in bar 1 leading to Bb dim7 in bar 2. So, effectively the same chord as the beggining of the A section. The Db root allows for good voiceleading from the preceding Bb/D.

Bar 3 in the Sinatra arrangement is Ab7 acting as sub V7/VI followed by G7 in bar 4 acting as V7/II, setting up a chain of dominants heading towards the final II V I cadence we expect at the end of most jazz standards (although the II chord signals minor harmony with C-7b5 to acommodate the Gb in the melody).

The beboppers prefer to make the whole last eight bars a sequence of II-Vs. So, the Sinatra arrangement chords are changed as in the table below:

Original: Db dim7Bbdim7Ab7G7C-7b5F7Bb%
Sideslip:E-7b5 A7b9 Eb-7 Ab7D-7 G7Db-7 Gb7C-7 F7Bb%

The third row of the table shows how side-slipping can be introduced resulting in chromatic II-V pairs from bar 3 to bar 6. Back to Erroll Garner’s avoidance of minor II-Vs. You can see how he accomodated the Gb melody note in bar 5 by using the Db-7 Gb7 reharmonisation.

From the trailer for The Uninvited, 1944.

Main take aways

Layers of understanding need to be built up. This is a complex tune and not one for jazz beginners to start with.

Melody matters. There are a lot of suspensions in this melody and you need to understand how to accommodate these in the accompaniment.

There are many reasons why we might make changes to the chords of a song:

  • Making it easier to improvise over by making the chords a common jazz progression where a less common one exists.
  • Making a conventional chord progression more interesting to listen to.
  • Making the melody a more interesting note against the chord.

This last point does not apply so much to Stella because the melody already is placed on interesting notes of the chords.

Converting minor plagal cadences to cadences using dominant chords is common in jazz probably because the dominant chord is the most flexible and provides for the maximum possibilities when harmonising and improvising:

  • IVm Im becomes IIø V7b9 Im.
  • IVm I becomes bVII7 I.

Melodic Minor Harmony is a very different way of thinking. It is used a lot in contemporary jazz and so worth getting your head round. But don’t forget traditional harmony which is the foundation of jazz.

For more check out my link tree:

Barry Harris in memoriam memorising

Conrad Cork RIP

EDIT: Conrad’s book is at last available as a PDF e-book.

EDIT: Conrad’s partner, Ali Cork, has made a Eulogy site where memorial contributions can be submitted.

I was saddened to learn that Conrad Cork died on Sunday 25 April 2021. Amongst other things he was a UK-based jazz musician, educator and author of Harmony with LEGO Bricks.

Though I worked closely with Conrad and helped him produce the 2008 final edition of his book, we never met. I wrote summaries of all the chapters as well as suggesting changes as I read through the whole book. I used Sibelius to produce engravings to replace all the music staff examples from the previous edition. All contact was by email; there was not a single phone call. But Conrad was always very supportive.

Some of my suggested changes were too much for the stage that Conrad had got to with his book (which had evolved through various editions since first published in 1985) and his plans for retirement. But he encouraged me to take them forward myself with his blessing.

In the following year I collected the ideas that had formed from working with and on Conrad’s book and wrote my own book, Insights in Jazz, which was published in November 2009. I made a series of podcasts to support my book and generally tried to update to approach where I felt I could. I was asked to take over running the discussion group about the LEGO bricks method. Conrad volunteered to write a review.

Money was never the motivation for Conrad. He was a true educator and keen to help as many people as possible learn about jazz music. Shortly after publication of the final edition of his book he sold the rights to Charles Alexander for £1 and did not ask for any royalties on subsequent sales of his book.

In further posts to the discussion group in 2016, he made it clear that if ever his book became unavailable for sale, he would wish it to become free to all:

What I would really like is for the whole thing to be public domain, with people free to help themselves to as much or as little as they want.

Conrad occasionally contributed to our discussion group. An example of his passion for the LEGO bricks method:

Blue Bossa us an ideal tune to let the LEGO Bricks penny drop.

The second halves of each line are exactly the same as each other in terms of chords. So you could play them as just that.

But you would lose the sense of the song’s ‘journey’. Each time you arrive at that last cadence it is from a different place (and the second time is from a major, when the song is predominantly minor, which is a whole change of atmosphere).

By using the LEGO terms , sad backslider to get into it first time and sad downwinder to get into it the second time, you will feel different and so play differently.

I may say I got a big ‘Yes!’ from Barry Harris when I showed him why the tune was in my book.

In Nov 2020 I told Conrad that after almost 30 years working in IT consultancy, at the age of 55 I was planning on stopping to find another focus, but felt too young to retire. With characteristic insight he replied:

Don’t think of it as retiring. Think of it as entering a new period of self-fulfilment on your own terms. Jung knew about it, as did the Zen masters. You still have the health and energy to do it properly. If you give your subconscious the space, it will tell you what to do.

Impressive blog btw.

So, I took Conrad’s advice, resigned from my job and focussed on my musical activities full time: playing, teaching and writing.

In 2017 he wrote in an email to me: “Perhaps one day we will meet? If you can put up with an agoraphobic recluse. :-)”. I’m sad to say, we never did.

I’ll leave the last words to Conrad from an email to the discussion group: “Thanks guys. It has been a privilege to get to know the people here. Means more than I can say.”

EDIT: Conrad’s partner, Ali Cork, has made a Eulogy site where memorial contributions can be submitted.

Jazz Books Keys memorising

Masterless Effortry

I had a painful experience about 25 years ago and I found a really powerful solution that I know will help others and is worth sharing.

I was the pianist in a big band populated mostly by amateur players run by a retired professional trumpet player. We were on a gig in a local town hall and played the first half of our set of arrangements that we had rehearsed. All was going according to plan. And then it happened.

The leader chatting with the audience over the microphone suddenly said: “Any requests?”

Someone shouted back, “Pennies from Heaven”.

Our leader turned to me and said off mic, “Can you play it?”

I shook my head in a mild panic. He looked at me for a few seconds more, then said, through a Cab-Calloway-like smile, “Try.” Before adding, “In Bb.”

With that he turned back to the audience and started to play. He played once through the melody in order to fulfil his contract with the audience member and fashioned a small cadenza on the last chord which I joined him for, knowing it would be Bb. Almost every other chord I played before that was wrong. No matter how hard I tried, there was nothing I could do because I did not know what I was doing. In short, it was a train crash. For me at least.

In hindsight I displayed “masterless effortry” (an amusing take by a friend of mine on the title of Kenny Werner’s book, Effortless Mastery, a book I would not come across for another 15 years or so).

The sense of shame I felt for not being up to the job was extreme. I quickly dealt with that uncomfortable feeling inside my head by blaming the leader (again, inside my head) for taking such an irresponsible risk by creating these unhelpful thoughts:

  • How could he be so rash/stupid/unkind?
  • If I’d had a chord sheet, I could have read it with ease.
  • It was not my fault! No one else in the band could have done it.
  • Why is the job of pianist so much harder than that of any of the other musicians in the band?
  • It would be ridiculous to expect me to know the chords to random jazz standards in whatever key he decides.

If I had read Nick Bottini’s, Just Play book about overcoming our unhelpful thoughts, I may well have handled the thoughts in my head better. Nick recently gave me a free copy of his book for making him laugh on his Wellbeing and Excellence Facebook group with a Limerick:

There was a young man called Bottini

Whose methods were rather unseemly

He’d post up a graphic

With words psychopathic

And host Zoom calls in just a bikini.

But I digress; back to my story: I received sympathetic looks from the rest of the band. We finished the set, packed up and went home. Nothing more was said about it.

Playing in jam sessions I occasionally found similar experiences would occur. I remember being so ashamed of my performance after being called to play on a standard tune I had not learned that I had to leave the building and walk the city centre for half an hour just to calm down. And when accompanying singers, it was often worse because you were lulled into a false sense of security by being given a chord chart in their key that usually turned out to be completely useless.

The Penny Drops

Eventually, I realised that the problem was never going away if I kept expecting the world to change. You can only change yourself and how you respond to the events that come your way:

  • Deal with your internal thoughts: Problems for musicians commonly occur becasue of the stories we tell ourselves in our heads about what other people think of our playing and what they expect of us. Learning to clear this out of the way can remove a massive barrier to our enjoyment of playing music. See the reading list below for a couple of books on the subject.
  • Learn the territory: You need to identify and practice in many keys the chunks of chord progression that occur in the kinds of music you play. If you focus on the perfect voicings of Bill Evans playing with no-one else but his own trio, you will not be well prepared for what the world throws at you. There is so much listening and responding needed in a jazz performance, it is not possible to do if you don’t know the material and impossible if you are reading.

Something had changed. I knew that I wanted to know how to hear and memorise the changes to a song without having them in front of me to read. And I was on a journey to find out how I needed to change in order to achieve it.

I’d never had an experienced jazz teacher who could teach me about the oral tradition, common song forms and how chord progressions work. What I did know, I had mostly taught myself from books. Though I had done quite a lot of transcription, it was of random songs that I liked in order to learn a cool voicing from Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans and I rarely transcribed more than a few bars. And, therefore, I did not get to understand how songs are put together and, thereby, how to hear where a song will probably go next.

Another friend of mine mentioned a book by Conrad Cork about an approach to learning jazz harmony like LEGO bricks that join together to make songs. It was sold by Jazzwise, a UK publisher, at the time. This was in the days of books printed on paper. I read it from cover to cover.

I was hooked because I knew this was the key to the answer to my problem. Not only did it explain the method of analysing and memorising chord progressions in a key-independent manner, but it had at least half of the book dedicated to explaining how jazz should be taught and explained why most teachers from the classical music tradition simply don’t understand how to teach jazz. His approach is based on listening to recordings of the masters and the oral tradition. But also he explains very well the difference in mindset between classical and jazz musicians. One idea that really helped me was the notion that each jazz performance is just a report on progress on playing that song. It is not meant to be some kind of perfectly finished product.

It all made so much sense to me. So much, in fact, that I started to analyse jazz standards using the approach in order that I could analyse and memorise them.

I can be a bit obsessive about things. I soon found that I had analysed over 200 songs using a spreadsheet to build visual roadmaps for each song. It occurred to me that others could benefit from my work and, with Conrad’s blessing, I wrote my own book extending the method and including all the song roadmaps.

Conrad’s book is no longer available. My book was also published in paper form by Jazzwise for a few years, but I decided from the beginning to also publish it myself as a PDF e-book which continues to be a popular form.

Things have moved on since 2009 when I first published my book:

  • PDF e-book is more convenient than paper form because it is electronically searchable. Owners can print out pages should they wish to. Less paper is wasted, sunk costs are reduced and everybody wins.
  • I made a series of free podcasts about the method and examples song analyses.
  • I run a discussion group online where users of the method can share their experiences.
  • Practice charts for the chord “bricks and joins” are available for free on the iRealPro Forum. The iRealPro app can be used with the free charts to learn all the sequences in any key with auto-generated backing tracks.

Pennies from Heaven

So, back to my devastating experience with Pennies from Heaven. What have I learned since then? Well, it is actually one of the simplest jazz standards and its chord progression is very easily memorised in a key-independent way.

Here is the roadmap from my book for the song:

The overview is as follows:

  • The chords are written in the key of C, but once the bricks and joins are understood, can be played in any key.
  • A section: a common jazz turnaround. (Many variants are possible and you can find them by listening to various recordings of this song to see what people play.) Play the turnaround twice and that is the first eight bars covered and the key is firmly established.
  • B section: Cadence to IV followed by the Slow Launcher (II7 V7) that we learn to expect at the end of B sections.
  • A’ section: Starts like the first A section but ends with a cadence to IV like we saw at the beginning of the B section.
  • C section: a “meta brick” over eight bars that is probably the most common sub-sequence in jazz. A variant of this is the last eight bars of the 12-bar blues, so it’s sound will be familar to you for sure.

One of the advantages of this approach is that you are not phased by chord substitutions. It encourages you to think in large chunks of chord progression within which some chords might be substituted, but you still know where you are in the song and where you are going.

As an illustration of how powerful this approach is, take the last eight bars of the chord sequence. This brick is labelled as the “Pennies Ending” after this song it is found in. But it is well worth becoming familiar with because it (or a close variant) is also found in the chords for the following songs:

  • Last eight bars of the blues.
  • The More I See You
  • There’ll Never Be Another You
  • A Weaver of Dreams
  • You Go to My Head
  • I Thought about You
  • It Had to Be You
  • You Turned the Tables on Me
  • Moonglow
  • I Can’t Believe You’re in Love with Me
  • East of the sun
  • Emily
  • I Fall in Love Too Easily
  • It Could Happen to You
  • It’s You or No-one
  • In a Mellow Tone

Taking this approach allowed me to memorise hundred of jazz standards and retain a trio gig for 12 years before the global pandemic temporarily stopped live music.

If you would like to read more about my book, download sample pages or purchase it, please check out my website. If you would like to read more about handling your own thoughts and emotions which are stopping you playing music, check out the reading list below.

Further reading

Elliott, J, Insights in Jazz, 2009.

Werner, K, Effortless Mastery, Jamie Aebersold Publishing, 1996.

Bottini, N, Just Play, ReThink Press, 2018.

Barry Harris block chords Harmony Standards

Block chording like George Shearing

Shearing had a real swinging ‘lollop’ to his style of block chording. I learned some of his techniques transcribing and analysing his arrangement of his classic, Lullaby of Birdland. Have a listen to his arrangement played here with Neil Swainson.

In this article I discuss applying the techniques found to the opening of Fly Me To The Moon. This song is ideal because the melody largely moves by step.

Most chords can be represented by Sixth chords

Most often in this style, the chord played is a maj6 or min6 chord (or an inversion). This leads to the notion of Barry Harris’s Sixth/diminished scales. But this is not as limiting as it might first seem. Using these voicings and scales it is possible to cover a wide variety of chord qualities because:

  • A-7 has the same notes as C6
  • Aø has the same notes as C-6

So that covers off four chord qualities right away. If you are wondering about maj7 and m(maj7) chords, these are covered by their respective major and minor 6 chords with borrowed notes, explained elsewhere.

Of the other needed different chord qualities generally used in jazz, this just leaves dominant 7 and diminished 7 chords:

  • C-6 can sound like a rootless F7 with a natural (unaltered) 9th.
  • C-6 can sound like a rootless B7 with b9 and b13. A sort of “B7 alt”.
  • Diminished chords can be used either for diminished chords themselves or to represent rootless 7b9 chords (eg G#o7 sounds like E7b9.

Drop-2 voicing

Notice that Shearing is mostly using drop-2 voicing (close position voicing with the second from the top voice dropped down an octave). This gives a fuller, more pianistic sound and it makes the great voice leading between the chords easier to hear.

Connecting with diminished chords to make scales

Shearing is using the well-known technique of inserting dim7 chords between the chord inversions to allow scalar movement of melodies.

When we combine a 6th chord with a dim7 chord a semitone below, we get a 6/dim scale, as Barry Harris calls it. Eg C6 and Bdim7 combine to give the C6/dim scale, sometimes called the C major bebop scale. It’s the same as C major but with one extra note (Ab).

The “target chords” are on the main beats (1 and 3); the dim7 chords are on the weak beats (2 and 4).

The Bdim7 sounds like a rootless G7b9 which is chord V of C6. So, as we play chords up the scale, we hear I V I V I V I V I. Barry Harris calls this “movements”; you can move chords within this scale and the harmony stays the same (V + I).

As an easy way to remember which dim7 chord to add, it is the one a semitone below the root of the target chord. This guarantees the strong leading note voice leading that is required for the V I sound.

Notice how the exact same notes also works for A-7 as explained above. And this goes some way to explain the extremely close relationship between the major and its relative minor.

If the chords being connected are not sixth chords, dim7 chords can still connect them:

  • Dominant 7 inversions can be connected with dim 7 chords. This results in the bebop dominant scale. See bar 3 below.
  • Finally, even dim 7 chords can be connected with dim 7 chords. This results in the diminished scale. See bar 7 below for an example.

Disclosure about enclosure

A common bebop melodic device is known as enclosure. It turns out that this is easy to do in drop-2 voicing of scalar melodies moving downwards when playing the dim7 chords in between the target chords. See the enclosure exercise below.

The melody moves D down to C. By inserting a B in between, the target note, C becomes enclosed by D and B, the notes immediately above and below in the 6/dim scale. It fits nicely under the fingers and gives a nice Shearing ‘lollop’. Go back and listen to the recording and see if you can spot where he is playing these enclosures in his melody.

Applying these techniques

Here is my arrangement of the first eight bars of Fly Me To The Moon. Remember, this is meant to be in the style of George Shearing, so it is not going to sound like contemporary jazz. I have written the rhythm of the melody as straight crotchets. Obviously, you can add more swinging rhythms such as starting one half-beat early so as to land on 4&, rather than squarely on beat 1. I did not do that in the notation, because it makes it harder to read and write!

Let’s take four bars at a time:

  • Bar 1: A-7 uses the C6/dim scale. The C6 represents A-7. The G#dim7 represents a rootless E7b9. I’ve added an enclosure in the pickup bar.
  • Bar 2: D-7 is represented by the F6/dim scale. Again, enclosure is used in the last beat of bar 1 using the C#dim7 which represent the secondary dominant, A7b9, which propels us to D-7.
  • Bar 3: G7 is represented by the G7/dim scale. Therefore the pick-up is an F#dim7 enclosure representing D7b9. Notice that the melody of bar 3 does not allow G7b9 until the last beat of the bar. But that is ok because …
  • Bar 4: C6 has a pickup of Bdim7 enclosure representing G7b9.
  • Bar 5: F6 is represented by the F6/dim scale with a pickup enclosure of Edim7 representing C7b9.
  • Bar 6: Bø is represented by D-6/dim scale with a pickup enclosure of A#dim7 representing F#7b9.
  • Bar 7: this bar is E7b9 as V7 of A-6. As usual the pickup enclosure is chord V7 of the target E chord which is B7b9 represented by D#dim7. For the bar itself, I decided to use the “double diminished” scale G#dim7/Gdim7 giving us C#, the natural 13 on the E7b9 chord. This bar is the only place in the melody so far that is not scalar movement. The G# moves down the F. That is a minor third and requires drop-2 G#dim7 inversions for both with no other chord in between.
  • Bar 8: I decided to tonicise the A- chord and so used A-6/dim scale. Therefore the pick-up enclosure is G#dim7 representing E7b9 (which the preceding bar was anyway).

What and how to practice

Remember, these drop-2 scales and voicings are a lot easier to play than they are to read (or write for that matter). I suggest practicing in stages:

  • Learn to play the target 6th chord in all inversions (so you know the notes)
  • Learn to play that in drop-2 voicings all across the useful range of the keyboard.
  • Learn the dim7 chord in the same manner. Remember it is built from a semitone below the root of the target chord.
  • Put the two chords together using the appropriate bebop scales and play them in drop-2 across the useful range of the keyboard.
  • Consider adding enclosures. Perhaps just targeting beat 1 of the bar. Practice until you can add them spontaneously as you move down the the voiced scale.
  • Practice moving through a chord progression playing down a scale for the first chord and up the scale for the next (this stops you going too high or low). No more than one chord per bar. Use a (secondary) dominant enclosure the propel you into the chord change. Just like the melody of Fly Me Too The Moon. See below for this idea applied to the Autumn Leaves progression. .

Practice using authentic swing rhythms. Listen to the Count Basie band playing Fly Me To The Moon and try and phrase your drop-2s like them. Bill Miller was Sinatra’s pianist for years and you can hear him (not Basie) playing the introduction to this song. He plays drop-2 voicings and he plays A-6 at the top of the song, not A-7.

For more check out my link tree:

Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory Keys reharmonisation

Minor harmony and Modal Interchange like Tord Gustavsen

I thought it would be interesting to talk about minor harmony and Modal Interchange and see how Tord Gustavsen used it in his composition Where Breathing Starts. It was originally recorded by the trio in 2003. This was Gustavsen’s debut album with the ECM label. There is a duo version with Ulrich Drechsler on clarinet from 2006.

This article considers how minor harmony is approached in jazz with reference to some of the standard texts on the subject. It is really interesting to see how the way jazz musicians think about minor harmony has changed since the 1950s.

The ECM label is based in Germany and is famous for jazz recordings with European and classical music influences featuring such artists as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber and Kenny Wheeler.

It is interesting to notice that the voicings found in this transcription are almost exclusively classical tertiary voicings (built in thirds) with inversions, rather than the typical voicings found in jazz piano from the US discussed in the article about Kenny Barron.

Other classical features of the arrangement include the use of bass lines featuring chord inversions and Mozart-style ‘Alberti bass’ lefthand arranging (see end of second A section).

This song is a tango. Tangos are usually in two sections which each repeat. The form here is AABB (16-16-16-16). The A sections are in C minor. The B sections are in C major.

What is Modal Interchange?

There are a number of terms for this concept which mean the same thing:

  • Modal interchange
  • Modal mixture
  • Modal borrowing

You may well be familiar with the idea of using several source scales to generate the chords used from jazz tunes in minor key harmony. Nettles and Graf as well as Mulholland and Hojnacki point out that minor tunes routinely use chords from:

  • Natural minor (Aeolian)
  • Harmonic minor
  • Melodic minor
  • Dorian minor (the second mode of the major scale)

They call it ‘Dorian minor’ because it is a mode of the major scale which happens to have a minor third. Other minor modes would be Phrygian, Aeolian (the natural minor we already have) and Locrian. ‘Major modes’ are Ionian (the major scale), Lydian and Mixolydian. These last two can all be used as source scales for chords.

Unlike major tunes, minor tunes are rarely diatonic to just one scale. For this reason, some think of the combinations of these 7-note source scales into a single 9-note source scale for minor tunes. The first five notes are the same anyway, for the sixth and seventh degrees we have both major and minor (6 and 7). This amounts to the full Melodic Minor scales in its classical ascending and descending forms combined).

In 1959, Mehegan said almost all jazz tunes are in major keys and that only five or six begin and end the minor. He goes on to say that minor-key jazz had ‘evolved’ to use melodic minor (ascending) to preserve the conventional bass lines familiar from major keys (eg I VI II V), while using the harmonic minor for the inner notes of the chords. Resulting in just seven available chords for C minor:

  • C-maj7
  • Eb+maj7
  • F-7
  • G7(b9, b13)
  • Bo7

A short, but useful list. And pretty much all we need for the minor parts of Gustavsen’s tune. But not quite complete enough for all contemporary minor jazz. For example, no C-7, F7#11, Abmaj7 or Bb7.

Dave Berkman points out that the vast majority of minor harmony chords are derived from the first three source scales above. And it is true that the only additional chord that Dorian provides is bVIImaj7 (Bbmaj7) because none of the other three scales has both Bb and A present at the same time. His list of most common minor chords is somewhat longer than Mehegan’s:

  • C-6, C-maj7, C-7
  • Ebmaj7
  • F-7
  • G7b9b13
  • Abmaj7, Ab7
  • Bbmaj7, Bb7
  • Bo7

Notice that there is no B7alt on the list. This is supposed to be derived from the seventh degree C melodic (ascending) minor, and yet cannot be found by stacking thirds. Mark Levine attributes this to the limitations of traditional music theory and goes on to choose the fourth note as the third of the chord.

Jack Reilly takes a simpler approach by simply using the melodic minor ascending and descending, he derives a 9-note source scale from which all parallel minor chords can be constructed. Mulholland and Hojnacki also go on to do this calling it a composite scale combining their four into one. They also point out that there is also the Phrygian minor mode to consider if you want to justify chords containing the note b2 or Db such as Dbmaj7 when in C.

Interestingly, Mark Levine’s books only consider harmony derived from major modes and Melodic Minor (ascending). Unlike the other authors, he gives no special consideration to the harmony of minor tunes in general and how they tend to behave differently from major tunes. He effectively excludes the harmonic minor without which it is not possible to explain a traditional minor II V progression. His books are excellent in many areas, but this seems like a significant omission to me. He also makes no mention of the concept of modal interchange, not even in his chapters on reharmonisation.

I’ll aim to keep it simple by talking only about chord source scales rooted in C. The relative minor of Eb major is C minor. The natural minor is the Aeolian mode of Eb major starting on C. Because the scale contains the same notes as Eb major, and chords derive from scales, they share the same chords. But if C minor is to function harmonically as a key, we need its V chord to be a dominant seventh to provide the expected tension and release of a V I cadence. The chord on G is actually G-7. The solution is to change the mode by raising Bb to B to give us a G7 chord. This mode is called the harmonic minor and we routinely borrow this version of chord V when creating minor harmony.

That raised B natural also gives rise to a full B dim 7 chord on degree VII. So, when in the key of C major and we use B dim 7 to represent G7b9, we can consider that we are borrowing chords from C harmonic minor. This is called modal interchange (borrowing or mixture).

So, it is common to see modal interchange in both major and minor keys. And this is what we will see when we analyse this song. But some take the view that it is only called modal interchange when it is the major key borrowing because minor does it all the time.

It is important to understand that these chords from other source scales are not just parachuted in without care. Voice leading is crucial to making good music. When we listen the Tor Gustavsen play this track he makes much of the movement, say from G on a C chord to the Ab on a minor subdominant chord.

A section

Listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

The A section is predominantly in C minor. As explained, minor harmony already draws on a wider choice of chords than does major because of the 9-note combined source scale commonly used. The transcription in this article shows the piano part above the double bass part.

The chords of interest in this section are:

  • Bars 3 and 6: G7susb9. It is voiced as F-6 or Dø over G, a slash chord.
  • Bar 11: Eb+maj7. The #5 is the B. This chord can be considered to have a source scale of either of C harmonic or melodic minors. In the recording, it is voiced as a G triad over Eb in the bass—a slash-chord voicing.
  • Bar 12: the B resolves to the usual Bb, making the chord Ebmaj7, but we do not hear a modulation to the relative major because this occurs in a weak place of harmonic rhythm. You can view this chord having the natural minor (Aeolian) as its source scale.
  • Second time bar: F and unaltered G7 are both borrowed from C major (aka the Ionian mode) hinting at the change of key to C major to come in the B section.
  • However, the G+7 and C- chords bring us back to C minor to complete the A section.

B section

Listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

Without preparation, the B section starts out in C major, the parallel major to the A section’s C minor. It really feels like the sun just came out.

Notice that the C major chords at the beginning of the B section are voiced as C triads with added 9th. There are no 6ths and no major 7ths. It’s a more modern sound than many jazz players use. Almost like something out of pop music.

Modal interchange chords of interest include:

  • Bars 2 and 4: A minor subdominant chord is borrowed from C minor and played over a C pedal. It can be viewed as F-/C or Dø/C.
  • Bar 9: F#ø. This chord has an E natural but does not naturally occur in C major. It is borrowed from the C Lydian mode.
  • Bar 10: Fo7. This symmetrical chord functions as a Bo7/F representing G7b9 and is borrowed from C harmonic minor as already mentioned.
  • Bar 11: The Bo7/F voiceleads perfectly to C/E confirming that we are still in C major.
  • Bar 12: But then the tonic chord itself has its bass lowered to become C-/Eb signalling that we are back in C minor without any warning. The sun went behind a cloud.
  • The final four bars of the first time ending are a slow minor II V confirming the return to C minor just in time to set up the surprise opening of the B section in C major on the repeat when the sun comes out again.

In those last two bars of the first time through the B section, Gustavsen allows himself a small improvised break (not shown in the transcription) which he had not done up to this point.

Listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

So far the B section has been about contrasting C major and its parallel minor. The genius of this composition is revealed in the second time through the B section where the relative minor (A) is also explored. The transcription below start with bar 5 because bars 1-4 are the same as the first time above:

  • Bars 6-7: a V I cadence to A minor is introduced.
  • Bar 9: F#ø same as the first time, unless we want to consider Am as a newly-established key (see below).
  • Bar 10: this time the symmetrical Fo7 acts like a pivot chord and this time represents E7b9 to get us back to A minor rather than the G7b9 going to C major the first time.
  • Bar 13: A minor has been established so I analyse the F#ø as being borrowed from A melodic minor. We see Fmaj7 which is borrowed from A natural minor (Aeolian).
  • Bars 14-15: V I cadence to A minor as a very different second-time ending to the B section.
  • Bar 16: The original A section theme pick-up begins again in C minor to allow the form to repeat. The jump from A minor back to C minor is unprepared and quite a shock if you don’t realise to where you have been led.

Perhaps listen again ➡️to the recording⬅️.

If you have enjoyed this article, check out my others and let me know. If you have found the insights useful, donations are always welcome. Or consider purchasing my book which analyses 230 jazz standards and distils the common harmonic features. All the links are in my link tree: ➡️⬅️.

Further reading

Mehegan, J, Jazz Improvisation, vol 1, Watson-Guptil, 1959.

Mulholland, J and Hojnacki, T, The Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony, Berklee Press, 2013.

Levine, M, The Jazz Theory Book, Sher Music, 1995.

Nettles, B and Graf, R, The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony, Advance Music, 1997.

Reilly, J, The Harmony of Bill Evans, vol 2, Hal Leonard, 2010.

Barry Harris Bill Evans block chords Comping Jazz Books Kenny Barron Practice Routine

Voicings like Kenny Barron

As a jazz pianist, how to voice chords is a tricky question. It applies to both playing melodies and when comping for others. This article makes a survey of common practice in modern jazz piano and illustrates using a Kenny Barron arrangement of a Benny Carter tune, The Courtship. All of these voicings can also be used for arranging horn sections in bigger bands.

A list of suggested further reading is provided at the end of this article.

The Courtship

Benny Carter recorded this tune in the 1970s, it is not very widely played. ➡️I made a playlist of the few versions I could find. ⬅️

The Kenny Barron trio version was recorded in the 1990s and grabbed my ear enough to make me want to transcribe it for playing in my trio, along with his song Calypso and his arrangement of Love for Sale. I use my transcription of this arrangement to illustrate how the voicings discussed in this article are used in the real world.

The form is AABC (8-8-8-12). The key is Eb.

How to sound good

The challenge with voicings on the piano is that there are many possible choices when distributing the notes of the chord across the keyboard. Only some of the possible combinations will be playable by a human with average size hands and numbers of fingers. Of this subset, only some will sound good. And of this second subset, only some will work with whatever else is being played at the same time.

Obviously, what is considered to sound “good” is in the ear of the beholder, but some tactics are needed for the aspiring jazz pianist to be able to provide voicings in demand. Therefore, part of the solution is to learn standard ways of voicing chords that can be practised until they can be played on demand.

An additional demand of sounding good is moving smoothly from one chord voicing to the next. A resulting rule of minimal movement between chords makes both the performer’s life easier and the listener’s experience more enjoyable.

The basic voicings

The first thing to learn is to play all the basic 4-note chords in “close position” (i.e. as close as possible, no gaps) all over the keyboard. This ensures that you know their notes and gives you an essential voicing as was used in early jazz piano before considering extension beyond the 6th or 7th.

John Mehegan talks about the 60-chord system, because he considers five basic seventh chord qualities:

  • Major
  • Minor
  • Dominant
  • Half diminished
  • Diminished

Why 60? Because 60 = 5 qualities x 12 keys.

By contrast, Santisi considers there to be seven basic chords (he adds major and minor 6), leading to an 84-chord system to practice (84 = 7 x 12).

When voicing a melody, voice the chord in an inversion immediately below the melody note. If the melody is not a chord tone, skip a chord tone below before adding the close position voicing so as to avoid too much dissonance with the melody.

Next you should learn to do the same, but in “drop 2”. This is just close position with the second voice from the top played an octave lower. A potentially more pianistic voicing and a bigger sound but requiring two hands to play.

Both of these two basic voicings can lead you off in the direction of “block chord” voicings as discussed in many other articles on this blog. The world of Barry Harris lies in that direction, based on the “6th-diminished” or bebop scales voiced as 6th chords alternating with the diminished chord representing the dominant 7b9.

If you play close-position voicings in the right hand and double the top voice in the left hand, this is sometimes referred to as “locked hands”. We saw Bill Evans do this in Laura. Some think it old fashioned, but it is a very useful technique.

Other “drop” voicings are possible including drop-3, drop-4 and drop-2&4. But these are less easy to use and therefor less common for jazz piano than drop-2. For example, drop-3 can lead to intervals of a second at the top of the chord, making it less stable and in the way of the melody.

Slash chords

A whole world of extra chord voicings can be accessed by putting one of the 60 seventh chords over an alternative bass note. These are sometimes notated as “slash chords” so called because of the slash between the bass note and the upper chord.

For example, take Cmaj7 (C E G B) and add new roots to create 5-note voicings for:

  • Cmaj7/A = A-9
  • Cmaj7/F = Fmaj9(#11)
  • Cmaj7/D = D13sus
  • Cmaj7/B = Bsus(b9, b13)
  • Cmaj7/F# = F#7sus(b9, #11)

This is described well by Bill Dobbins. He makes most of his book out of this idea.

Left hand voicings

Ever since Mehegan’s books in 1959 people have talked about (rootless) left hand voicing used by pianists to comp for themselves. They are modelled on some of the voicings that Bill Evans and others such as Wynton Kelly used. Many beginners are told that memorise these voicings as the minimum requirement to sound like a modern jazz pianist. But few teach where they come from.

Santisi explains that, depending on the chord quality, you can substitute some voices in the basic seventh chords such as:

  • 9 for root
  • Maj 7 for 6
  • 13 or #11 for 5
  • Etc

Each chord type (quality) has standard common voice substitutions which enhance the sound without changing the chord’s identity.

This is an alternative and broader view to Barry Harris’s notion of “borrowing from the diminished side” which is limited to the particular extensions that happen to be on the diminished side.

Upper structures

This is for dominant 7 chords only. The idea of this approach is to find a triad that contains the tensions needed and to use it as the upper part of your voicing. The right hand plays the triad, the left hand plays the supporting tritone of the dominant 7 chord (the bass player plays the root, if needed). Some examples:

Levine only uses major and minor triads as his upper structure triads and he focusses on just nine useful ones. Whereas Santisi includes aug and dim triads resulting in 26 available upper structure triads for each dominant chord.

Levine is more constrained and describes this voicing method as only applying to altered dominant chords. He does not include C/C7, for example, which seems to add no value. But nor does he include the useful aug and dim triads.

Mantooth is even more constrained with his upper structures. He called them “polychord fractions” and states that that upper structure is always a major triad limiting himself to just five: II, bIII, bV, VI and bVI.

The upper structure formula can be applied in various inversions so long as the tritone is on the bottom and the triad is on the top.

How do we know which to use? Well, use your ear. But there are some rules that might be useful:

  • If the chord is V in the key then all possible alterations are allowed. US VI is probably the most common.
  • If the chord is V of a target minor chord round the cycle of fifths, then use an upper structure that includes b9 or b13.
  • If the chord is not cadential (eg bII7, II7, IV7, bVI7, bVII7) use an upper structure with natural 9, natural 13 or #11. US II is probably the most common.

Fourths voicings

Sometimes called “quartal” these voicings are generally built in fourths. They still contain some thirds in order to avoid some notes that don’t sound so good.

  • On major chords we avoid the 4th degree and substitute it with the 5th. The root and 7th are used interchangeably.
  • On minor 7 chords we generally avoid the 6th degree because it clashes with the flat 7, being a semitone (or major 7) away.

One of the fourths voicings that we end up with is the one used in the original arrangement of So What (SW in the figure above). Levine calls this the SW voicing whereas Mantooth calls it the “Miracle Voicing”. This is because it can be used for a variety of functions. The chord built from the bottom upwards as E A D G B can function as:

  • Cmaj9
  • Fmaj7#4 (Lydian)
  • G69
  • E-7
  • A7sus

Of course, this special voicing has its own inversions. Five notes means five possible inversions if we include the original. The five notes form a pentatonic scale: G, A, B, D, E. The voicings are constructed by taking every other note from that scale. If you know what note you want in the top, you can build down from the scale taking alternate notes. Say, from the top down: E, B, G, D, A.

All contain a third (shown above with the brace) except one which is all fourths. So, you can see, it is just a fourths voicing really. This helps to explain why fourth voicings sometimes contain a third without detracting from the quartal sound.

Putting it into practice

Now we have reviewed some of the voicing options, let’s see how Kenny Barron puts them into action on The Courtship. My transcription only shows what the piano is playing. Often times the double bass is providing the chord roots.

Generally, only important melody notes are harmonised with voicings— this is not block chording where the whole melody is voiced.

The first four bars of the A section are shown above and can be analysed for voicings as follows:

  • Bar 1: F-7 as a drop 2 voicing. This is comping—it is not part of the melody. The melody fills the rest of the bar as a single line.
  • Bar 2: F-9 as a rootless drop 2 voicing of Abmaj7. Bb7b9 as an upper structure.
  • Bar 3: Eb69 as a fourths voicing. Notice how good the II V I cadence sounds using these three different voicings.
  • Bar 3: Ab7#11 as an upper structure.
  • Bar 4: G-7 as drop 2. C7b9 as Edim7 in drop 2. The Bb is raised a tone for the melody as can always be done with diminished chords while remaining within the same diminished scale.

He uses slash chords at the beginning of the bridge (see below).

  • Bar 1: G-7 becomes C7sus as the bass note moves from G to C and the voicing remains the same.
  • Bar 2: G-6 is used to represent C9 as the bass moves down through Bb towards A.
  • Bar 3: Cmaj7 is used over A played by the bass to represent A-9.

The end of bar 3 there is a chromatic approach chord added, A7, before the Ab-6 in bar 4. Both are voiced as close position with the melody doubled in the bass (locked hands).

The C section is like an A section extended by a tag, played every time.

  • Bar 4 has a dominant approach chord of Gb7. Similarly bar 6 has an Ab7 approach chord.
  • Bar 8 has the two upper structures played in succession which represent C7alt. These are US bV and bVI.
  • Bars 9 and 10 have slash chords. F-7 and Bb7sus are both simply voiced as Cm triads as the bass changes. Then Bb7sus(b9) is voiced as Abm/Bb.
  • The D7alt at bar 11 feels like Ebdim7 substitute for the expected Eb6 chord. The bass is D but the voicing could be interpreted as Ebdim7/D.

For more check out my link tree:

Further reading

These are the books cited in this article.

Mehegan, J, Jazz Improvisation, vols 1-4, Watson-Guptil, 1959.

Aebersold, J, Transcribed Piano Voicings (comping to vol 1), 1980. This book is a transcription of the comping voicings which Jamie played on his first play-along record.

Mantooth, F, Voicings for Jazz Keyboard, Hal Leonard, 1986.

Levine, M, The Jazz Piano Book, Sher Music, 1989.

Ray Santisi, Beeklee Jazz Piano, Berklee Press, 1993.

Dobbins, B, A Creative Approach to Jazz Piano Harmony, Advance Music, 1994.

Levine, M, How to Voice Standards at the Piano: The Menu, Sher Music, 2014.