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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 Too 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.

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: https://linktr.ee/Jaelliott

By jaelliott24

Jazz musician, author and teacher.

One reply on “Block chording like George Shearing”

Man, I get a kick out of your blogs. In a holding pattern right now. Best Regards. Tyrone.

On Wed, Apr 21, 2021 at 8:29 AM John Elliott’s Blog wrote:

> jaelliott24 posted: ” 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. I” >

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