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.
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.

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.

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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.

Jazz Books memorising Practice Routine

Thanks for the memories

We are all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And, to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually changing those habits, which is to say the network of our memory. No lasting work of art was ever created by an external memory.

Joshua Foer

In 2007 I read a book about memorising jazz chord progressions by breaking them down into manageable ‘chunks’ and noticing how they join together to make a song. It is no exaggeration to say it changed my life.

In 2011 I read a book by Joshua Foer about techniques used by memory experts called ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’. None of it was about musicians, but it helped me understand why the impact of memorising jazz standards was so great.

For more check out my link tree/ Donations are optional but very welcome if you are able.

Reading, writing and some arithmetic

The life-changing book I read in 2007 was ‘Harmony with LEGO Bricks’ by Conrad Cork. In 2008 I worked with the author produce the final version of his book before he retired. The book contains very interesting discussions about how badly jazz has been taught by music schools with classical music traditions and how this can be improved.

But what interested me most of all were the chapters about memorising chord progressions. Cork’s book was a real path finder originally published in 1985, more than 10 year’s before books by David Baker and Jerry Coker about how to memorise tunes.

In 2008 I landed a jazz piano trio gig with a bass player who seemed to be able to play any song in any key. I felt ashamed and very limited by the real books that I carried along to the gigs. So I set to work applying what I had learned in the ‘LEGO book’ to a bunch of jazz standards and making myself play them on the gig without music and in various keys.

I found that in applying the LEGO method that various extensions were needed to accommodate the chord progression I found in the songs I chose. Cork’s book only had space to analyse a couple of dozen songs.

My day job was as a technical consultant, my degrees being in Computer Science and Electronics. I naturally found it easiest to build visual roadmaps for each song in a workbook of spreadsheets. After I had over 200 songs analysed, I realised that this work might be of interest to others. Though it had not been my original intention, I decided, with Cork’s enthusiastic encouragement, to write a book about the extended method and include the memorisation roadmaps. My book, Insights In Jazz, was published in 2009. I make it available as a PDF which has the advantage of being electronically searchable. Once you know what progression you want to learn, you can find in which standards it occurs.

Since his retirement, Cork’s book is increasingly difficult to get hold of. I made sure that my book stands alone without the reader needing Cork’s book to understand the approach. There are free podcasts about the method and there is also a Google Group where members can discuss and share their efforts in applying the method.

The fact that I had used spreadsheets meant that I was able to perform some simple statistical analysis on the jazz standard chord progressions I had analysed to reveal some interesting observations such as:

  • What are the most common song forms? (AABA 50%; ABAC 25%)
  • What are the most useful chunks of LEGO bricks to learn first for most rapid payback?
  • What are the most common joins between bricks, what do they achieve and where do they occur in song forms?

The process really helped me develop in confidence and ability as a jazz pianist. The jazz piano trio gig residency I was lucky enough to land in 2008 ran for 12 years until the global pandemic stopped live music in 2020.

The remainder of this article is about the how the techniques of memory experts described in Foer’s book can be applied to playing jazz.

Chunky monkey

Memory experts refer to what they call ‘chunking’: reducing the number of things to remember by increasing the size of them.

  • Contrafacts. Does this song use the chords of a song you already know? Or perhaps at least the bridge is borrowed from I Got Rhythm?
  • Song Form. Is it AABA or ABAC or something else? The As are the same so only need to be learned once.
  • Families of progressions: You will have heard of cadences (such as ‘II V I’) and turnarounds. These are families of chord progression which are functionally similar and can therefore be used to substitute each other.

Memorising at a glance

Chess experts are able to memorise positions of all the pieces in a game at a glance. This is because they know what combinations of pieces arise and what to expect. They have seen most if it many times before. It is the same for a jazz master. They can memorise at a glance a new jazz standard chord progression because they have seen most if it before and they just need to spot the unique hooks that make the song special.

For this same reason, chess masters can reconstruct long-ago games from memory. Jazz masters can do the same with songs they have not played in a long time. They just recall the hooks.

Studies have shown that a chess player’s ability to memorise games is a good indicator of their level of playing. The same is true for jazz. There are no jazz masters who cannot memorise songs. There are no jazz masters who would choose to read common standards from sheet music on a gig, rather than learn it beforehand, because they know the benefits. If you are reading, half of your brain is not available for improvising.

We are not computers

The human memory works nothing like computer memory. It works by association. We are bad at recalling sequences, which looks like bad news if you want to internalise chord progressions. Many give up and rely on reading from real books and apps.

A chess master does not compute many moves ahead like a chess computer does (this is why they no longer generally beat the computers!). They recognise the position and respond intuitively. A jazz player in the middle of a song will recognise the context and intuitively know what to play.

It is not about memorising streams of chords with no understanding like a computer might be programmed to do. Masters are not especially gifted at memorising in general; it is because they are experts in the patterns that appear in their fields that they can do it. Give a jazz master a random sequence of chords and they will struggle to memorise it as much as anyone else.

Clichés are essential

Jazz is an aural tradition. When you think about, it would not be possible to memorise hundreds of songs and play them in any key if their melodies and chord progressions were not full of things we have heard before.

Expert jazz players are always relating the song they are playing to the other songs they know. They can’t help but do that. This is why they often find themselves quoting other songs in their solos. It is not something they sit at home planning to do on gigs, it is a consequence of how all the circumstances conspire.

Just the gist

In a master jazz performance, the chords actually played will be different every chorus but this is not a problem. This is because the master knows how to substitute chords without changing the underlying function of the harmony. Therefore, in terms of memorising, we need to get to the essence, just the gist.

We are good at remembering the gist. We are very bad at retaining things verbatim. It was a tonic major chord. But was it maj 7 or maj 6? I don’t remember and I don’t care. We trust our ear to help us out if needed as we go.

Understanding families of chord progressions which can substitute each other becomes very important. By contrast, players who read chord progressions on gigs are highly vulnerable to getting lost and will not be robust to other players making substitutions on the fly.

Memory Palace

Ancient orators used the idea of a memory palace to help them retain long and complex speeches without using notes. You may have seen a speaker do this; it is very impressive to watch.

The idea is that we are all know a house with rooms. We can easily imagine a tour through this house visiting each room in a particular order that makes sense to us. We place graphic mental images of the things we need to remember as we move though the rooms. The crazier the better. When we need to recall the sequence we recall the tour and our memory automatically recalls the images through association. Not only do we recall all the topics we planned to talk about, but they come in the correct order.

But is it really any more impressive than watching a master jazz musician play a set without music? The memory palace can be thought of as the melody. Let the melody be your guide. When we learn songs, we learn the melody first and then the bass line. By association, the melody takes us on a tour where we hear the roots of the chunks of chord progression.

Memory for words

Travelling bards used music to help them recall the tales they had to tell without having access the written word. Some jazz masters recommend always learning the words to the standards you play. One advantage of this is that if you are recalling the words as you play, you are much less likely to forget which A section you are on in an AABA-form song!

But other jazz masters (e.g. Bill Evans) said they never paid attention to the words.

Externalising or internalising?

The Moonwalking book says, “The proliferation of digital information at the beginning of the 21 century hastens the pace at which we externalise memories.” This is certainly true in the jazz world. I remember the time when the only real book was the illegal one and people were more likely to learn songs from the recordings of masters. If you didn’t know a song, you’d go and learn it for next week. Now it is commonplace for players to turn up to jam sessions with iRealPro on their smartphone or tablet and play songs all night which they have not internalised.

Three stages to learning a new skill

Foer asserts that there are three stages to learning a new skill:

  1. Cognitive Stage: intellectualising, discovering new strategies;
  2. Associative Stage: concentrating less, making fewer errors, being more efficient;
  3. Autonomous Stage: Running on auto-pilot, the ‘OK Plateau’.

This is certainly true for learning to play jazz standards. Stage one is realising that the only way to play jazz better is to learn many jazz standards and starting to analyse.

Stage two is spotting the commonalities and using them to more rapidly learn new songs. For example, the chord progression in the bridge in Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple is the same as that in the bridge of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm.

Stage three is just playing. The information has been processed and is available to your subconscious but there is no time to make calculations when playing.

Will we just keep getting better and better?

The benefit of this approach to memorising songs is that the hard slog at the beginning leads to an avalanche effect and our rate of progress increases. You might find yourself learning a song a month, then one per week, then maybe a song a day. However, most people don’t keep improving rapidly. Why is this?

Foer again: “What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focussed routine: ‘deliberate practice’ … To improve, we must watch ourselves fail and learn from our mistakes.”

There is no avoiding it. You have to be organised and do the work. Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to help yourself to keep improving is learn how to spend your practice time.

“The single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he has played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he has spent alone working through old games.”

One way to keep yourself improving is to play faster than you are able. This will identify the areas you have not mastered and allow you to return to the conscious Stage 2 to fix them.

This is the opposite of the classical approach which increases the metronome in small increments.
Both approaches have merit since slow practice is designed to ensure good control. But sometimes you find that you just cannot increase the metronome without making mistakes (the plateau).

For more check out my link tree/ Donations are optional but very welcome if you are able.

Further reading

Elliott, J, Insights In Jazz,, 2009.

Cork, C, The New Guide to Harmony with LEGO bricks, 2008.

Foer, J, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Penguin, 2011.

Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory Keys reharmonisation

Why analyse harmony?

My introduction to functional harmony was about forty years ago when my piano teacher, Chris Norton, told me to buy Jerry Coker’s Improvising Jazz and got me transcribing the Fats Waller I was listening to rather than the Oscar Peterson which was a bit beyond me at that point.

Understanding functional harmony helps you recognise chords which helps you with transcribing, re-harmonising, composing and playing by ear. What’s not to like?

An understanding of functional harmony is gained by analysing music based on tonal harmony. This blog is a whistle-stop tour to give you an overview and hopefully peak your interest enough to go and find out more. A list of suggested further reading is supplied at the end.

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Functional harmony

The basis for functional harmony is categorising the sound of chords within a chord progression into groups. This applies to all music based on tonal harmony which is most music from 17th century Western European music to most contemporary jazz. Western traditional harmony which, in turn, is largely based on the sounds of the chords in a major key (diatonic) and other sounds (non-diatonic) used considered as being relative to this major key.

This is important to understand. John Mehagan’s series of books from 1959 state that almost no jazz standards are actually minor songs. For example, he analyses Monk’s Round Midnight with Roman numerals from Gb and Eb major rather than Eb minor.

I’ve written about this dualism before in relation to the Pink Panther Theme.

Harmony within a key, ‘diatonic harmony,’ has three basic sound groups that the listener can learn to hear as a chord progression is played:

  • Tonic (stable, home)
  • Subdominant (less stable, away from home)
  • Dominant (very unstable, tension)

Roman numerals

Within the major key, chords are built using the major scale as roots and stacking chords in thirds. Chords are labelled according to the degree of the scale that is their root using Roman numerals: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.

Knowing the correct chord qualities for each Roman numeral within the key is essential for choosing traditional chord progressions within that key. Whatever the major key, I and IV are major 7 chords, II, III and VI are minor 7 chords.

V is the only dominant 7 chord in the key. This is important as is explained under Secondary Dominants below.

VII is a minor 7 flat 5. This chord is mostly avoided, though it happens to be exactly where needed to start a II V I cadence to the relative minor (see later).

Traditionally, these are the only chords you can use if you stay within the key. The jazz harmony view of this is somewhat different, adding common re-harmonisations and substitutions.

Grouping these chords as above we get:

  • Tonic: I, III and VI
  • Dominant: V and sometimes VII
  • Subdominant: II, IV and sometimes VI.

Other analytical techniques such as Modal Interchange (see below) allow us to add non-diatonic chords to these groups. You may notice that not everyone agrees what category chords fall into. For example, Jerry Coker says that #IVdim7 is dominant. But the majority agree on how the common chords function and that gets us a long way.

Movement between the ‘sound groups’ above is the basis of harmonic progression. Chords are conventionally chosen to build up tension and then release it. This is why the II V I progression is so common in jazz; it takes us from less stable, to very unstable and finally to stable. This sequence creates tension and release or resolution as we return home to the tonic chord.

Other progressions are available, such as IV V I, which supply similar tensions and release. This is often seen in classical music. However, bass lines moving down in 5ths or up in 4ths are the strongest and jazz favours the II V I.

One problem with Roman numerals is that there are so many competing conventions used:

  • John Mehegan (see the Round Midnight analysis above) used the Juilliard system which is all uppercase and does not mention the quality of the chord unless it is different from that expected on that scale degree in a major key. Like this: II V I. We know II is minor 7, V is dominant 7 and I is major 7, unless specified. This trains you to think for yourself deeply within the key. This is the system I first learned and tend to use. He writes a cadence to IV like this: Vm Ix IV. The ‘x’ indicates a dominant where not expected. We are encouraged to think as if the key is not really changing for these common transient modulations.
  • Jerry Coker books use all uppercase but slightly different notation for the chord qualities. Like this: IIm7 V7 IM7. Cadence to IV: Vm7 I7 IV. A bit like Mehegan.
  • Berklee School (Nettles and Graf) use all upper case, but with the chord quality always attached. Like this: II-7 V7 Imaj7. Completely clear, but very busy and lots of redundancy. Cadence to IV: V7/IV IV. The new II chord may be there and bracketed (see below) but not labelled with Roman numerals. We are encouraged to think relative to a new key temporarily.
  • Others still (eg David Berkman) use uppercase for major triads and lowercase for minors. Like this: ii-7 V7 IΔ7. Do we need reminding which chords are major and minor every time? His cadence to IV is more like Berklee: ii-7/IV V7/IV IV. Though he also labels the II chord.

You pays your money, you takes your choice. As with chord symbols, you need to be proficient at reading and understanding all the common variants and you should try to be consistent in what you choose to use.

The Bracket-Arrows system

Why not just use Roman numerals so that we can easily spot the all-important V I progressions? The answer lies in the way that jazz harmony has evolved to use many transitory modulations and tends to pass through several other keys, sometimes even within a few bars. The challenge for jazz players, arrangers and composers is to spot the cadences both in their original form (II V I) and with common substitutions as the music passes through key areas other than the original key.

A system using brackets and arrows emerged from the Berklee School of Music based on the above requirements of analysing jazz harmony. It can be useful for tonal jazz standards such as those from the Great American Songbook.

To be clear, not everyone uses this system. For example, we don’t see it in the jazz harmony books of Mark Levine, or David Berkman. But it is mentioned by Rawlins and Bahha (Jazzology) as well as Andy Jaffe (Jazz Harmony).

Secondary dominants

Jazz musicians add dominants of the chords within the key to chords that they expect to see used. They are so common that they come to feel like they are part of the key. It is important to understand that while they require some accidentals to be used, but they are not just any random five dominant 7 chords from any of the other 11 keys. We use “V/x” to mean the dominant 7 (chord V) of chord x. They are:

  • V/II (A7 in the key of C)
  • V/III (B7)
  • V/IV (C7)
  • V/V (D7)
  • V/VI (E7)

You may have heard that in order to make the minor key work, we sharpen the seventh degree of the scale to provide a leading note that pulls back to the tonic. In the diagram above Am is the relative minor (VI) of C major. A G# is added which creates the E7 needed to act as V/VI. But this is not just a special case. All the secondary dominants require accidentals outside of the key because they are not the dominant of the original key.

These secondary dominants ‘tonicize’ the following chord. It is for this reason that we do not include V/VII because chord VII has a b5 and therefore does not make a stable temporary tonic.

These chords are very common and they provide the opportunity to add lots more arrows to the analysis of jazz standard. If the secondary dominant is broken down into a ‘II V pair’ then a bracket is added.

Tritone substitution

We know that II V I is the most common progression in jazz harmony. There is also a common substitution called tritone sub. In C, the G7 becomes Db7. We notate this as ‘subV’ or simply ‘sV’.

Whereas V I resolves down a fifth, is the strongest progression and takes an arrow, sV I resolves down a half step (semitone), is also strong, and takes a dashed arrow.

If the substitute dominant 7 chord has its associated II chord then a regular bracket is used indicating progression down a perfect 5th. If the II before substitution is retained then a dashed bracket is used indicating progression moving down a half-step.

By including these dashed brackets and arrows, the system allows us to call out the common substitutions which might otherwise remain hidden. Once we understand what is going on, the easier it is to internalise it and play it in other keys.

Modal interchange

As explained, most jazz standards are based on major diatonic harmony. However, the process of Modal Interchange is often used to ‘borrow’ chords from the diatonic harmony of parallel keys or modes. Here, the word parallel means having the same tonic. For example, a song in D major might borrow chords from D minor. Or from one of the modes such as D Dorian. This what happens in Jobim’s Wave. The song is in D major, but the introductory vamp is D-7 G7. While these chords might initially look like II V in C, a better analysis is that they are I IV borrowed from the parallel mode, D Dorian.

Example analyses

Remember that analysis can be subjective; people will not always agree on how chords are functioning. Different folks use different tools. I suggest using a mixture and whatever works for you at the time.

For example analyses applying some of the techniques mentioned in this blog, see these other articles:

If you have enjoyed this article, check out my others and let me know. If you have found the insights about where common harmonic moves occur in jazz standards, take a look at ➡️my book which analyses 230 jazz standards and distils the common harmonic features⬅️.

Further reading

Coker, J, Improvising Jazz, Simon and Schuster, 1964.

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

Elliott, J, Insights In Jazz,, 2009.

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

Jaffe, A, Jazz Harmony, Advance Music, 2015.

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

Berkman, D, the Jazz Harmony Book, Sher Music, 2013.

Rawlins, R and Bahha, N E, Jazzology, Hal Leonard, 2005.

Barry Harris Jazz Books Jazz Theory

Bob Keller RIP

I was very sorry to hear that Bob Keller died on Sunday, 13 September, 2020. For 29 years Bob was a professor of Computer Science at Harvey Mudd College, California, USA.

Bob had a very active interest in Jazz improvisation and he taught classes in this as well as his main subject of Computer Science. I first came across Bob when he bought my book about memorising jazz chord progressions, Insights In Jazz, in 2009. He joined our discussion Google Group where he was a very active member contributing to many discussions over the years.

Bob was always searching for a deeper understanding of how music works and practical application of computers to this problem. In 2010 Bob visited the UK where we both presented at the Leeds International Jazz Conference (LIJC) and met Dave Leibman who was the keynote speaker that year.

Me presenting at LIJC, photo taken by Bob

Bob also visited my home town, Edinburgh, with his wife, Noel, and came and sat in (on pocket trumpet) with my piano trio at the Shore Bar in Leith. It was on that trip that he introduced me to the teachings of Barry Harris, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Me and Bob at the Shore Bar

Bob and his students at HMC developed free-to-download software, Impro-Visor, which supports students learning to improvise. We entered into discussions about how the software could be extended to automatically generate song Roadmaps for chord progressions as described in my book. The software was written and then tested and debugged using the 200+ roadmaps in my book.

We published an article about this collaboration in the MIT Computer Music journal in the winter of 2013.

MIT COMJ article

I remember goading Bob with the fact that programmable computers were invented in the UK by Babbage, Lovelace and later Turing. Bob put me in my place by pointing out that Turing’s PhD before his Enigma code-breaking machine during WWII was done at Princeton in the US.

Bob on pocket trumpet.

I will miss our regular discussions about theoretical models of how jazz works. Check out his page of useful jazz-related links. Sincere condolences to Noel and family.

Bob travelling the world.
Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory

Over the Rainbow re-harmonisation

I love this tune. As a boy, I learned to play a George Shearing arrangement transcription. But I always found the tune hard to memorise or play by ear because the A sections were full of complex substitutions I had not really understood.

More recently I was reading David Berkman’s excellent Jazz Harmony book and it occurred to me that what I needed to do was build from the ground up. I was recently taken by a recording by Tommy Flanagan in the key of A, so I transcribed the chords and set to work charting the path from simplest to most complex.

The Berkman approach

His approach is one of concentric circles of increasing complexity.


The inner circle is IV, V I. Start with just these chords to define harmony as tonic, subdominant or dominant.

Don’t analyse, just use your ear, the melody and any memory of how the song is played. You may notice the melody lands on chord tones as the chord changes.

Use four-note chords, i.e. 7th chords or 6th chords (not on V). This makes the function clearer since the V7 is the only chord with the unstable tritone interval.

Diatonic substitutes

This is the second circle. We use the major scale to define the chord types and group them into the three categories above:

  • Tonic: I, III, VI
  • Subdominant: IV, II
  • Dominant: V, VII

You can substitute chords in the same category for each other. All of the chords so far only use notes in the major scale; they are diatonic.

Secondary dominants

Next, the third circle. V I is the driving force of Western harmony. V defines where I is and makes the resolution a target.

By this same logic, we can target the other diatonic chords using dominant chords with notes not in the major scale, but they still function within the key.

D-7 prepares us for G7;

D7 propels us to G7.

Strings of dominants round the cycle can be used to propel through colourful harmony to a target point within the key. The fact that dominant chords are the most flexible in what tensions are available means that the melody can almost always be made to fit the new chords.

The most common secondary dominants are V7/VI, V7/IV and V7/II.

Any dominant chord can be broken down into its related II chord moving to the secondary V chord. D7 G7 becomes A-7 D7 D-7 G7.

Passing chords

The fourth circle is passing chords. Add a chord in-between two existing chords. These passing chords are either a semitone or tone above or a semitone or tone below the second target chord. The most common are a dominant 7th a semitone above, or a diminished 7th a semitone below.

Modal interchange

Chords can be borrowed from ‘parallel’ scales, i.e. different scales that start on the same note as the tonic of the key. If we are in C major, we can borrow chords from one of the C minor scales such as Ebmaj7.

Finding the pot of gold

By starting with just chords I, IV and V, we can apply the re-harmonisation techniques and derive the chords used by Tommy Flanagan. OK, so let’s apply the above approach to the first A section of Over the Rainbow:

First four bars
Second four bars

And for anyone interested, I put all the Tommy Flanagan chords (in his key of A) into an iRealPro chart:

Tommy Flanagan chords

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Harmony Jazz Books Jazz Theory Standards

Radio Leith Interview

Here is a link to an interview I did with Radio Leith about my book, Insights In Jazz, a method for memorising jazz chords progressions.