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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- A cut out-out-and-keep guide to finding the 6/dim scales for any chord type: https://jaelliott24.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/qr-code-for-block-chording/
- How George Shearing used 6/dim scales to add enclosures to his block-chord melodies: https://jaelliott24.wordpress.com/2021/04/21/block-chording-like-george-shearing/
For more, see my link tree.
- Berkman, D, the Jazz Harmony Book, Sher Music, 2013.
- Levine, M, The Jazz Piano Book, Sher Music, 1989.