This is the first part in a series of articles where I will explain how to take a simple melody and turn it into a jazz tune, complete with appropriate harmony, voicing, bass part, and notation for a session or performance. I will explain and demonstrate the basic concepts of jazz. These are the cheat notes that even a drummer should be able to understand (I should know, I am one).
Part 1 deals with the melody, harmony, and piano voicing. Part 2 explains how to take the melody and voice it in a Thickened Line style for a big band saxophone section. Part 3 explains how to come up with simple and effective bass parts and how to notate your charts. Finally, Part 4 will introduce a new tune that requires some more techniques but will also serve as a complete example of everything covered in the previous sections.
I would like to thank Mike Barry for this idea and Cinesamples for funding the recording of the saxophones and rhythm section. Jeff Vaughn for recording and mixing. Chris Lennertz and everybody at Sonic Fuel for the studio. Noah Gladstone and Hollywood Scoring for contracting and AFM Local 47 for working with us to find a contract to make the recording possible.
Melody, Chords, and Voicing
Here is a simple melody. Something that someone who is not a jazz musician might come up with if they were called upon to write some jazz!
Pretty straight-forward. Think of this as the first phrase of a longer tune. Now lets harmonize it in a traditional way using chords I, IV, and V.
Apart from the swing rhythm, the other thing that will make this ‘jazz’ is that every chord will have an extra note. The default addition is the 7th. If we add a diatonic 7th to each of these chords we get-
When you listen to this, it does start to sound jazzy, but it is pretty lame due to the thick (low and cluttered) voicing. The default way to address this is to take out the 5th in each chord. The most important notes in a jazz voicing are the 3rd and 7th, which are often referred to as the guide tones. The third defines the tonality of the chord, and the 7th determines its function.
The ii – V – I
Adding notes from the C major scale, the I chord becomes a major 7th, IV also a major 7th, and V a dominant 7th. While classical and pop harmony is often based around the I – IV – V progression, the basis of jazz and the most important progression to know about and use is the ii – V – I. So we substitute a ii for the IV. While our progression stays in the tonic key center, you can use a ii – V or just a V to modulate to any temporary tonic. It is the same concept as in four part chorale writing. The Coltrane tune Giant Steps took this concept to its extreme.
Now we have ‘jazz’! All of the elements, melody, harmony and voicing, are ‘correct’ for the jazz genre.
We can, however, make things a little more interesting. The next thing would be to fill in another chord in the first measure. The default way to do this is to go a fifth above the next chord. The next chord is ii, so the fifth that leads there is vi. Now we have I, vi, ii, V (I). This is one of the most common progressions in jazz and is the foundation of ‘Rhythm Changes’ (the chords in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” that have been used as the basis for 1000’s of other tunes).
In any tonic chord, major or minor, you can substitute the 6th for the 7th. This gives a softer, some might say older, sound. There is no major 7 (or minor 2nd) in the voicing, so less of a ‘grind’ (jazz speak for good dissonance). This is also very common when the melody is the tonic (so a C in this case, see example K). This prevents the major 7th from rubbing against the tonic at the top of the voicing. In general, for a normal jazz sound, you avoid a minor 2nd at the top of a voicing. In more modern styles, this is not a problem. A major 2nd is OK if the melody is voiced in the low- to mid-range, but as you get higher, it is always best to have a 3rd or more as your top interval. For normal jazz sounds, I personally try to avoid all 2nds at the top. 2nds at the top of trumpet voicings often sound like someone ‘missed’!
I find the minor 6 chord underused these days. Check out Summertime, or the bridge to the Pink Panther for some classic uses.
So far we have kept each chord to just one added note, the 7th. Once you have mastered this it is time to add some more. The next note to add is the 9th. Just as we added the 7th by going up the scale of the key, we do the same with the 9th. This gives a little more spice to the harmony. Adding the 9th is pretty much done automatically by most jazz musicians. It is always implied and will be often added even if it is not in the chord symbol. Spelling out all the 9ths in these examples is for academic purposes; in the real world, I would write the chords as in example F, knowing the player would add the 9ths. Of course there are higher and altered extensions that add even more color, but I will save them for another day.
Substitutions and Passing Chords
Now we will look at adding some interest by using substitutions and passing chords. You can see in the third bar, the A minor chord has been replaced by a C# diminished 7th chord. As you will see with all of our substitutions and passing chords, there are often several explanations.
As I mentioned above, you can pretty much precede any chord with the chord a 5th above. You have the option of making it diatonic or changing it to a dominant chord and making it a temporary dominant. In our case, we could have made the A minor 7th chord an A dominant 7th.
A trick to remember is that when the tonic (or temporary tonic) chord is minor, you can nearly always use a flat 9 on the V chord before it. So in our case we could use A7(b9) as our D minor tonic Harmonic minor scale has a Bb in it. If we leave the root (A) out of this chord, we end up with a diminished 7th chord. This is a really common substitution.
Look at bar 4 (Example H). There is now an Ab augmented 9th chord harmonizing the E. The E in this case is fine harmonized by the D minor chord, but by reharmonizing it with a passing chord (a chord that harmonizes a note that is passing between two chord tones) we create some nice movement.
Just as our new chord in bar 3 is based on the temporary dominant concept, so is this one. We could change the D minor on the downbeat to a D7 but that would be a bigger color change than I want here. Where the D7 can come in handy is to harmonize the E. The E is the 9th. This would work fine, but a quick V-I can be a little clunky, we need a way to smooth it out. Enter the tritone substitution.
In our case, the melody is an E, not a note in a standard Ab7 chord. It is actually the #5 in an Ab augmented 7th chord, and works just as well. You can see that apart from the melody that moves a step into the G7, every other note moves by half step.
A tritone substitution can replace a dominant chord completely or extend it. In our example we are extending.
So far we have looked at making additions and improvements to the harmony. Now let’s take a look at the melody and see what can be done to make it a little more interesting.
With any melody, look for places where you can add a chromatic passing tone, either by replacing an existing note or by adding one. In our case, we have a perfect spot. We have a repeated E that moves a whole step to a D, we can change the second E to an Eb and add some nice chromatic passing interest. We can also approach our last D chromatically.
These new notes do not necessarily need any new harmony, as they resolve by half step and thus sound fine. But seeing as we are heading towards writing a saxophone voicing with a thickened line in Part II, let’s look at how we can harmonize them.
In both cases, the same trick will work. This can be justified as a tritone substitution, but there is a much easier way to think of this example. It is called chromatic planing. Planing is when you take a shape (chord voicing) and move it under the melody retaining its intervallic structure. This can be done diatonically or chromatically. In our case the intervals are locked chromatically so it is a chromatic plane. We keep the shape, and move it under the preceding note. Planing can be one or more movements. If it is just a single movement, it also sometimes called side slipping. You hear guitarists do this all the time as it is very easy to do on the guitar. They slide into any chord from a half step above or below.
Another common variation is to substitute a iii in the third measure in place of the I. From there, we can travel the circle of fifths to get back to I (E-A-D-G-C). We can also have some fun with bar two and use a series of tritone substitutions to get to the E minor chord. You will see in this one, I add a bar and resolve the cadence. Notice that I use the 6th in place of the 7th to avoid a minor 2nd at the top of the voicing.
If you look at the next to last chord (Db7), you will see it is a tritone substitution, extending the G7 dominant. If you look at the notes, you will see that it is actually a G7 with a Db bass. The chord symbol looks a little scary, but if you think of it as a regular dominant over a tritone substitution bass, it is actually very simple to understand how and why it works.
Here is a video that strings together all of the examples so you can hear and see the development of the harmony.
As you can see, there is no mystery to any of this. There are rules and formulas that get you from example A to example K. We have also now created voicings that would work really well for a string orchestra. You could give the melody to a singer or instrumentalist and the leftover parts would translate perfectly to a string section. The only changes I would make would be to move the top string part to the melody at the end of the phrases. There is a lot of information above, and I would not expect anyone new to jazz to get it all on the first reading, so please take your time and go through it a few times, playing the examples yourself. For further study I recommend The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine, this is the book that helped me first understand how it all works.
Stay tuned for Part 2.