Color Me Blue


Mel Martin

In my previous two columns I offered the concept of the the rhythmic universe, the melodic universe and the harmonic universe ranking them in that order of importance. In graphic terms, rhythm represents the framework, melody represents line and harmony represents color. This article will explore the functional approach to harmony as well as various commonly used conceptual practices . Of the three above mentioned universes harmony is the most functional or useful. It is difficult for harmony to be studied in a vacuum as it directly intersects with rhythm and melody at any given point. The rhythm of a harmonic structure is as important to define as the rhythm of a melodic phrase, actually more so because you can stretch a melody line over the rhythm and harmony by delaying or speeding up it's resolution. The harmonic structure must adhere closely to a particular placement in the rhythm as all improvisation and variations take place within that structure.

In working with entry level students on their ability to deal with changes, the single biggest obstacle is getting them to be able to arrive on a given change at the correct moment. This has to do with their technical ability in being able to transfer what they see on a page to their instruments. There are a couple of things that can be done to improve this situation. First of all, chords can be practiced on a horn, violin or other lead instruments by simply running arpeggios in time or the particular structure of a song. This gives the player the ability to "change" the chord at will. Of course, this concept needs to be extended to being able to play chords in their various inversions and extensions as opposed to root position which also gets into the area of playing "voicings". The root is actually where you might wish to end rather than begin. Commonly, beginners start from the root of a chord when they are attempting to solo from a lead sheet. A better method is to learn to hear the chord change. The player needs to be able to identify the particular quality of a given chord, ie; major, minor, diminished, augmented, dominant 7th, major 7th, 9th, 11th, 13 etc. This can be accomplished through a thorough ear training course as well as courses in basic four part harmonic theory such as Bach Chorales and four part dictation. This includes the study of voice leading as well as root movement and inversion. In a jazz sense, this can be accomplished by transcribing the many great jazz pianists to see and hear exactly how they harmonize their own lines and those of the players they are accompanying. The beginning improviser needs also to develop a good sense of relative pitch. This enables them to hear and measure the distance between notes, ie; intervals. The player needs to hear this in the melodic line as well as the bass line which is a major clue to where the chords are going. This begins to touch on the basic function of harmony which is to move through a composition at various points in time and space.

Another primary function of harmony is to add color to the piece. This can be anything from basic colors (triads, seventh chords) to extended colors (9ths, 11ths, 13ths). In listening to classical music one can sense this development through the works of Bach which puts forth solid harmonic motion coupled with clear contrapuntal lines through the dark hues of Beethoven and Wagner, the brighter colorings of Mozart, the impressionistic colors of DeBussy and Messian and the pan-tonal colors of Stravinsky and Copland. These are but a few examples and one can find many parallels in the jazz continuum. Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans are the best examples of the impressionistic influence while McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea represent the more angular and well defined schools of harmonic thought. Of course, they are extensions of older schools of playing such as those of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Herbie Nichols and Elmo Hope and before them Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I am mentioning piano players primarily because it has always been my feeling that they hold the "keys" to the harmonic kingdom. They have the ability to move the harmony as well as see and hear it as no other instrumentalist and I have always held a particular fascination with these players. This is why soloists are consistently advised to have a basic working knowledge of the keyboard so that they may develop this type of ability and bring that to their primary instrument.

In working with the keyboard, the player has the ability to see and hear chords and their extensions. The next step is to attempt to put the chords together in the rhythmic form of the song, slowly if necessary, to get the actual flow of the harmony. This is most important as this allows us to begin to "hear the form". Hearing the form is important because one cannot count the bars as one plays. You must begin to hear the distance between chords just as you hear the distance between notes (intervals) and beats (meter). Not all compositions are based on standard forms so it is the spacing of the harmony within the rhythmic structure that gives the piece it's form. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. It is this aspect that is the largest obstacle to learning how to play changes. A good example of the problem arises in the tune Impressions which is based on the changes to So What. The chords are but two; D minor for 16 bars, Eb minor for 8 bars, and D minor for the final 8 bars. The problem here is not the chords themselves but the form. This is a good piece for beginners because of the harmonic simplicity but they usually have trouble knowing where the top of the form is. The problem is in hearing 8 bar phrases, not 8 bars of D minor or Eb minor. The novice hears three 8 bar phrases of D minor after each bridge and thus loses the ability to hear where bar 1 is. If the ear can hear the entire 32 bar form as a whole, it becomes much easier to deal with. This is the key to knowing where you are in any composition, even far more complex pieces.

Another method often employed in dealing with complex changes is the use of slash chords. This is a kind of shorthand for extended harmonies which ultimately makes it easier to quickly conceive of chords that go into the higher intervals. The following examples show a simple method for computing complex chords.

F/G is a G9sus4, G/FM7 is an FM9#11 , D/Fis an F6 b9 , Bm/F7 is an F13 b9 #11, D/Bb is BbM9 aug5.

These are but a few simple shortcuts and offer a simple and fast way to think of extensions. There are many ways to string together entire sequences thus reducing the amount of mental power needed to execute such a fete.

The colors implied by harmony are one of the most important functions of harmony. The blues forms which date back to a prejazz era are one the most obvious examples. To this day, we imbue the blues with the "blues scale", "blues chords" and "blue notes". Why blue? Why not call them green then we could say let's play a "greens". Obviously, the blues means to be in a blue or sad mood. Then we have red hot jazz, the bright hues of major keys and the dark hues of minor. Every chord in it's infinite uses offers an emotional effect that is crucial to the mood of the music. The improviser and the composer must develop a genuine sensitivity towards the use of these colors and feelings. Dizzy Gillespie called Charlie Parker one of the world's greatest blues players. Now, Charlie Parker was one of the masters of complex harmony but he knew when to go with the mood or feeling of the blues and let the more cerebral issues take care of themselves. Joe Henderson uses harmonic extensions in a similar way that Charlie Parker did by creating promethean lines that clash and intersect with the basic harmonies, often creating extensions that reach beyond the 13th. When playing on this level of sophistication, chords become signposts as opposed to icons, giving the player a direction rather than boxing him in a restrictive way.

Using the actual voicings of a chord on a horn that a pianist uses puts the player into the role of arranger. This begins to touch on the point of finding the "significant" melody notes to a given chord. When defining a melody through the process of improvisation, the player is always looking for the the notes that will sound the best over any given set of harmonies. Playing the voicing on an instrument is one way. Another is to try and use the fewest notes to signify the sound of a particular change. Ornette Coleman can change the entire key of a song by simply modulating certain notes. John Coltrane would pick the notes of a chord that would clearly signify his own lyrical direction. Miles Davis could play a few simple notes that would clearly signify the mood of the piece he was playing. The range and tonality of a particular player's sound has a great deal to do with the desired effect. Tibetan Buddhists play horns with specific pitches that propel them into higher consciousness. I've always felt that the great jazz players were doing the same thing in selecting the most interesting notes of a chord in a way that elevated consciousness. Perhaps the greatest at this was Dizzy Gillespie. He could pick the wildest intervals of a chord and make it all sound totally integrated with his melodic concept on the trumpet. He learned much of his concept from Thelonious Monk, particularly in the area of half diminished chords. He once told me that he never recognizes a chord as half diminished but as a minor 6th chord a minor third higher. A Dm7b5 was a Fm6 to him. This way, he would automatically include an E natural in the F minor scale which is, of course, the 9th of the Dm7b5, a very hip sound. Monk was a master at making a few notes sound extraordinarily full. It was this influence on all of the great people that played with him, that was carried to it's most logical conclusion along with his concept of melodic development.

The other approach is arpeggiating the chords, particularly the upper extensions as voicings. Coleman Hawkins was, perhaps the first and foremost practitioner of this method followed closely by the great Don Byas. Joe Henderson and George Coleman also use this approach to great effect. Coleman combines this technique with circular breathing as did Rhassan Roland Kirk before him. This allows the soloist to dictate what the harmony should sound like as the notes run together forming a "voicing".

As I mentioned before, the three universes of rhythm, melody and harmony can be studied separately and infinitely. The serious jazz musician and composer should attempt to balance these universes so as to produce music that is not lacking in any of these areas. At the early stages of jazz study, harmony tends to take on an undue importance because everyone would like to know in advance what the good notes are so they can sound as good as possible. Actually many players learned what the "good" notes were by playing by ear and finding out what worked and what didn't. Theory actually comes after the fact of the music, not before. In other words, a player could have all the answers in advance but still not have a clue as to what to play because they are not truly hearing. I inevitably recommend that students learn the melody to a given song to the point where they "own it". This allows them to learn to hear the form through the melody. The more melodies you know, the more melodic you can play. The more music you know, the more music you can play. This is how resources are built and one needs many resources in order to be a complete improviser and composer. In my next column, I will talk about ways to build these resources and what to do with them.

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