History Of A Passing Chord

Today I’m investigating variations of a parallel chord movement targeting bar 9 of a 12-bar blues: III- bIII- II-. I think it’s been somewhat written out of history. Although I am just a bass player, I’ll talk a bit about harmonisations of the movement, and finally look at some melodic inventions over it.

I’ll start with Satchmo. “West End Blues” (1928) is harmonically old-fashioned by our standards, with two bars of V7 at bars 9 and 10. Although there are hints of the III- bIII- II- movement at 1:10 and 1:46, it only emerges fully in Earl Hine’s piano chorus (1:59). From bar 8 of an Eb blues he plays:

Satch

Although he plays some extra weird bass notes (like E to F#), we can discern a chord progression: I VII7/#II II-, very similar to the better-known I bIIIo7 II-. How does this relate to my III- bIII- II-? They all share this parallel shift of a minor 3rd:

Passing 1 3rds.png
In the key of C

Does this mean anything? Well, I suggest you play just that minor 3rd shift in that spot (last 2 beats or last 4 beats before bar 9) of a blues. It sounds extremely bluesy and, as best I can express it, world-weary. Voice-leading-wise, it can land on the 1st and b3rd of a II- but equally the 5th and b7th of a V7. It’s parallel movement, which, as I suggest in this post, harks back to blues’ basis in overtones, which always move in parallel.

 

More evidence, please! you demand. Let’s look at recordings from two Delta bluesmen.

Skip James uses the chromatic minor 3rds in “Yola My Blues Away” (1931). This amazing song is in his characteristic open D minor tuning. It’s an unusual elaboration of a 12-bar blues, with a V7 on bar 2 and a bVI on bar 6. In the lyrics verses, the V7 is substituted by a bVII targeted with our parallel minor 3rds, e.g. at 0:35 after “in the morning”.

Passing 2 Skip
We’re getting away from my theme here, but out of interest… Skip James’ “Special Rider” uses a similar coloration but with a V root note. I think Skip James used this combined V- and bVII sound as a single modal area with vocal melody influenced by both I and V blues scales, not easily translatable to Western or jazz harmony.

In Robert Johnson’s slicker, almost pop idiom, we also find III bIII II, in his case as a bassline targeting a standard V7 on bar 9. (“Malted Milk” was recorded in 1937.) Actually, it’s not a bassline – the tune mostly doesn’t use bass notes – but rather a single-line movement to the 5th of a V7 which then uses a low open A string as a strong bass note. You can perhaps see what I mean better if I notate it:

Passing 3 Johnson
Okay so we’ve seen the movement in early jazz and early(ish) blues. What about performers straddling that border? Nat King Cole’s lovely “Easy Listening Blues” (1944) is a great jazzy instrumental blues, that features the III bIII II movement from piano, bass and guitar – but at different speeds, leading to clashes.

Check out 2:16 – the guitar and bass imply the movement over the last two beats of the bar, but Cole gives two beats of the bar to III- and bIII- respectively (using some syncopation). A similar thing happens in the first chorus between bass and piano at 0:23. Are the clashes a bad thing? Not at all in my opinion. We’re merely seeing the dominance of directionality – as long as the paths converge on the same goal, it’s fine to use different paths or the same path at different speeds. The moments of tension are a consequence of three players navigating the form together, and contribute to the blue feeling of the piece. Note as well that Cole plays |II-7 V7|II7 V7 |, similar to Earl Hines’ progression, with a tasty inner voice movement to #4 during the II7.

Charles Brown’s classic “Driftin’ Blues” (1945) is harmonically simpler. Here the whole band agrees on a one-chord-per-beat III- bIII- movement targeting II-, for example at 1:46, in the 2nd chorus of guitar solo. Even soloist Johnny Moore outlines the movement. He superimposes some really hip clusters in the rest of the song, for example the descending idea at 2:09, or this outside, but very bluesy, superimposition of 9th chord upper structures on top of the bass’s III bIII II movement.

Passing 4 Charles
Top staff chord symbols show guitar’s implied harmony, bottom staff piano/bass’s implied harmony

Note the trickiness: the chromatic movement seems like it will land on A9, not the usual chord but one with a strong blues identity and also somewhat related to the expected F#-7 subdominant (A6)… in any case, instead of A9 the third chord leaps to form the upper structure of an F-6!

Moore also uses the exact same basic descending minor 3rds idea we’ve been finding all along as an approach to an implied V-7 (II chord of IV) in bar 4 of the blues form, at 1:30.

Both of these performances, as well navigating the form with elegance, navigate the idioms of jazz and blues with ease. Nat King Cole uses grace notes and drone notes to create blues effects in the lead while using sophisticated harmony below. Charles Brown contrasts simple minor pentatonic fills with Johnny Moore’s hipper guitar (which still depends strongly on ultimately African-influenced parallelism/timbralism)!

Okay I want to finish now with some classic Charlie Parker blues to show how the III- bIII- II- movement worked in bebop. Our first example has Dizzy Gillespie playing a literal A-7 Ab-7 G-7 every single time on bar 9 of the form! The bass player gets it after the first chorus.

Finally, a composition whose progression is now named after Parker… but we know now that the A-7 to Ab-7 to G-7 movement has a long history. Parker takes the III- bIII- II- progression that we’ve previously seen at the rate of two beats or one beat per chord, and gives four beats to each chord. (On the recording, they’re not played as II Vs by the pianist).

 

Passing 8 BFA Chords.png
Harmonic sketch of “Blues For Alice”

Check Parker’s melody in the head and in the first two choruses of his solo on bars 7-8:

BFA All

He doesn’t sequence downwards or baldly state the chords. His solutions are far more melodic, guided by diatonic-ish intervals and simple guide tone movements. To my ear, the one in the head seems to imply a negative dominant resolution to V (so, Ab- to C), the next one implies a negative dominant resolution to II- (A- C- to G-) and the next a different minor 3rd colour switch from A- to A major (or F#-) before settling as an Ab-9.

I’d love to hear about your own ways of navigating the blues form! Sorry for the late post and see you next weekend!

Enough With The Scales

Today’s post is not research but opinion. I’ll keep it short, as I’d like it to be a starting point for discussion. You are invited to comment!

I’m going to argue that chord-scale theory, the conceptual framework used in jazz college courses world-wide, is flawed even as a teaching tool. I swallowed it whole in jazz school, and frankly I think I wasted years trying to make music according to it.

The basic idea, of matching scales to chord symbols, is useful and I’m glad I learned it early. But it can’t be your only guide. I’m with the widespread view that learning bebop is key to navigating changes. Chord-scale theory is bad at explaining what bebop and bebop-influenced players did. (Music made by people who learned chord-scale theory at jazz school, unsurprisingly, fits it better. In fairness, the theory has enabled some great music and great advances in playing.)

Is chord-scale theory a useful simplification for teaching? I believe it loses too much in return for too little understanding.

(By the way, I’m going on my memories of ensembles and courses, and books such as Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book. I may not be completely fair to them. But I’m talking about the overall results of this teaching system.)

The first thing chord-scale theory misses out on is the idea of key. Jazz until the 60s (and most of it after that) was in major or minor keys (with a lot of room to manoeuvre of course). Playing in key, whether diatonically or bluesily, is a basic element of jazz improv and melody. Yet this can’t really be expressed in terms of chord-scale theory. Sure, basic chord progressions like I IV or II V I, when explained with the theory, do yield the 7 notes of a major key. But that’s an unproductive way of restating that chords can belong to a major key.

It’s not that chord-scale advocates were against the traditional view of keys and chords. Rather, they took it as given, and tried to progress from it. Unfortunately, their supplementary ideas are taught as a complete system to beginners or rock-oriented musicians who don’t understand functional harmony.

So, in the theory, chords are reduced to signposting 7-note scales/modes – supposedly a pool of equally “valid” tones. This misses out on a lot. All the inner organisation of chords is de-emphasised. That’s a massive melodic resource thrown away. The crucial functionality of dominant chords via voice-leading resolution of their tritones becomes a vague notion of “avoid notes”. The whole lovely world of functional chord relationships within a key, as well as its developments via blues and alternate paths, is defused and obscured.

To be precise for a moment… it’s valid to try make a new system to deal with e.g. extended, suspended and altered chords. But chord-scale theory fails to look in detail at directionality, acoustic effects, or any other audible aspect of those chords.

For another example, the all-important fact that melodies inescapably suggest chord progressions (which needn’t be the accompanying chord progression), is barely glimpsed in Mark Levine’s famous textbook. I went back and checked just there.

… By the way, check out this funny quote: “Why does the blues scale – with so many “wrong” notes – sound so right when played over a blues? Your guess is as good as mine.” Cheers Mark, I’m only after spending 30 quid on your book.

518mumyzhal-_sy344_bo1204203200_
His book

Sadly, this lack of specific talk on harmony means that African-American contributions may not get their due. Let me explain that. Going beyond chord-scale theory means recognising the importance of European classical concepts in jazz: tonality, chord- and non-chord tones, etc. But, observing those also forces you to observe when they don’t apply, which is often – so then you have to face African-associated forces like timbralism, pentatonicism, parallelism and alternate paths. Chord-scale theory completely flattens all this cultural/historical stuff out.

More abstractly, it doesn’t invite investigation into the underlying structures of music such as symmetry, the harmonic series and maximally even sets.

If I had to find something genuinely progressive in the theory, it’s the possibility of getting away from relating tones down to the root of a chord, and instead imagining a harmonic space to be freely divided. I like that.

Am I asking too much from a learning aid for students? Well, I think a lot of people, like I did, come to music courses without very clear ideas, searching for meaning which they sense is somewhere in the music. It’s insulting to put anything but the best ideas before anyone sincerely looking for knowledge.

I’m starting to get rather idealistic. Okay, I think chord-scale theory is popular because it is a shortcut allowing students to quickly start playing and interacting rhythmically while avoiding wrong notes, which is cool. The problem is they will probably play bad melodies.

(I did.)

What are your thoughts?

Alternate Paths on a Blues

Today I’ll use “negative dominant” progressions to solo on a jazz blues. These ideas are from Steve Coleman – and I’m not the only one to have tried to interpret them. I had to cut them down a lot, so I recommend you read his stuff, with the warning that it is hard! After I do my best to explain the idea, I’ll show how these movements are present in typical jazz harmony, then play through entire alternate chord progressions built off them.

To understand a “negative dominant” progression, we should consider a traditional dominant to tonic cadence.

Trad 2

The tritone B F (actually tritone plus an octave in this voicing) resolves to C E, a major 3rd (plus an octave). The chord moves down a 5th (or up a 4th) – G7 to C. These resolutions are the basis of mainstream jazz harmony… but not the whole story.

Although this cadence happens all the time, spelling the notes of a plain V I progression makes a very corny melody. Jazz musicians have long avoided that sound in favour of altered and substitute chords.

Steve Coleman has characterised the harmonic/melodic techniques used by Charlie Parker to avoid the V I sound as “alternate paths” or “invisible paths”. He brilliantly uses symmetry to explain how they are the “dark side” of a normal V I. (He is also brilliant at coining names for these things, evidently.)

Symmetry emerges from mirror images.

6317943810_22fa0077ed_b

What would be a mirror image of a V I? I can “reflect” it by inverting it, for instance around the axis note D. (For the nerds, this is because the C major scale is symmetrical around the note D.) So, every note in the original progression is replaced by one equally distant to middle D…

Inv Loran Fixed.png
The process of reflecting each chord of the original progression. G7 turns into D-6, C turns into A-.

… but on the opposite side of the D axis note. Below D if it was originally above, and above D if it was originally below. E.g., the B in the G7 ends up as the high F in the D-6.

Inv Full Progs.png
Comparing the original progression with its reflection in bar 2.

What is the new progression? D-6 to A-. It has a tritone resolving to a major 3rd (B F to C E, again separated by an additional octave) but the chord moves up a fifth, not down (D-6 going to A-, not G7 going to C). And both chords are minor, not major. Steve Coleman calls this a “negative dominant” resolution to A minor.

This by itself might explain how a lot of II V licks seem to be more tonally weighted on the II- than the V7. A melody over a II V I could imply a II-6 to VI- movement (negative dominant resolution) rather than a V7 to I movement. Although the chord tones are almost the same, the mental model and the tonal gravity would be different.

Such melodic shapes can be shifted to other positions and still retain their cadential power. This is due to the phenomenon of borrowed chords, or modal interchange in jazz speak. So, instead of the negative dominant that fits in the C major scale (D-6), we could use the one that fits C minor, i.e. F-6. It still resolves down a fourth (because it’s a negative dominant), but with the distinctively pretty sound of landing on a tonic major: F-6 Cmaj. Coleman notes that this IV-6 sound is often used over a V7 chord, creating a “dominant 7th complex” notated V11b9 (G Ab B C D F). The darkening substitution of D-6 by F-6 can be re-applied to the F-6, changing F-6 to Ab-6. The resulting bVI-6 sound is also used on dominant chords forming an altered V7#5b9 chord.

So, without going any further into symmetry, we have three melodic-tonal centres that can be used as dominant chords to target a tonic chord: II-6, IV-6 and bVI-6, targeting I. Crucially, these negative dominants are present as upper structures in most functional  jazz progressions.

Often, one of these negative dominant chords will be found as an upper structure of a jazz chord, followed by one of the darker versions (e.g. II-6 followed by IV-6) as an upper structure of the next chord. So:

D- F- is present in the following functional chord progressions:
B-7b5 E7alt
B-7b5 Bb7
D-7 G7b9 (probably in the key of C)
D-7 Ealt (probably in A minor)
Fmaj7 Bb7 (probably in F major)

I’m being flexible with chord spellings – to make the point clearest I could say F6 Bb9, because clearly D- and F- are the exact upper structures of those chords. But I’m using Fmaj7 Bb7 as a shorthand for two chord types, not exact voicings. Same deal with the G7b9, it technically should be the 11b9 mentioned above.

There’s another darkening movement, which is shifting up a tritone:

D- Ab- is present in:
D-7 G7alt
D-7 Db7

As well as these darkening movements, there are the actual negative dominant resolutions to a target chord.

D- A- is in:
B-7b5 E7b9 A-
E7b9 A-
G7 Cmaj
D-7 G7 Cmaj
G7 F#-7b5
C#7alt F#-7b5

F- Cmaj is in:
D-7b5 G7b9 Cmaj
G7b9 Cmaj
F-6 Cmaj (back door, same with the next two)
Bb7 Cmaj
F-7 Bb7 Cmaj
Bb7 A-
F-7 Bb7 A-

Ab- Cmaj is in:
G7alt Cmaj
Db7 Cmaj
Ab- A- (not seen as a written chord progression but I’ll be using it later)

Okay, let’s stop with the wall of chord symbols. The take-away is: a small set of negative dominant progressions (and their associated voice-leading and cliches) can be re-used on a huge variety of jazz changes. Today I’ll use the two basic types of movement: darkening and resolving – to navigate inside and outside the harmony on a jazz blues.

2 2 Stave

My alternate pathways in the first video, with the second staff showing example bebop harmony compatible with the alternate pathways.

My alternate pathways here are inspired by the original melody of Blues For Alice (transposed to C). Then I take a somewhat strange turn in bar 9. I work from II- VI7 II-7 V7, a common decoration of a II V progression, e.g. as implied by the melody of Billie’s Bounce…

BB Lick

… but I use a C#- to target the second D-, and then straightforward negative dominants to target the E-7 of the turnaround.

3

Here there are two main ideas: bar 1 has an unexpected B- (equivalent to Bb7alt) targeting Eb-6 in bar 2, which I interpret as a C blues scale shape (because it has the notes Eb, Gb, Bb and C). This is another way to use minor shapes – as blues colours, primarily I-6 and bIII-6 against a I or IV chord. But here the Eb- (bIII-) is also functional, implying a D7alt sound going to G-.

Then I use what could be standard bebop changes to reach the bar 9: interpretable as, say, Cmaj7 F7 E-7 A7b9 (bars 7-8). But I keep up this rate of movement to arrive at a tonic chord (A- which could be Cmaj) in bar 10 rather than bar 11 as expected. I create a cyclical feel by repeating the exact pathway for the next 3 bars. Every pair of chords involves a shift up a minor 3rd, but it’s not a strict pattern because the G- D- resolution breaks it.

4
The first pathway in video no. 3.

 

5
The second pathway in video no. 3.

If you find it hard to hear how this relates to a blues, here is the same solo with bass notes added (and abominable sound quality!).

I had to slow down even more to get some juice out of these progressions. (I play the first one once and the second twice.) The first uses those blues colours again. The second uses unexpected resolutions of a minor chord to major chord a fourth below (so, the F#- is an Amaj, and the C#- is an Emaj), with that major chord changing to a minor chord. It also strictly uses only the darkening and dominant cadential movements, lending it quite a lot of momentum.

There are so many more possibilities, of course. For example, diverging from the subdominant chords in the blues, i.e. the IV in bar 5 and the II in bar 9. In my examples I stick to the original subdominants. Obviously I’m only barely scratching the surface!

I had fun coming up with and playing through these progressions. To conclude, I think the relationship of these pathways to conventional jazz harmony is crucial. I’m thinking both ways as I play. Also, obviously, the pathways are only a technique. These sequences have a rather severe sound due to the unrelenting drive of the cadences and the minor colouration – that mightn’t always be what you want.

Hope you enjoyed it! Sorry for the late post. Please comment with any related ideas, thoughts, questions or criticisms!

Thanks to Loran Witteveen for correcting my examples!