Too Much Harmony?

When I was at best an improver at jazz, a tutor who I very much respected told me that he was hearing too much harmony in my solo playing. My first reaction was surprise – how could you possibly have too much harmony? Wasn’t that what we’d been taught to do? Play through the changes making all the chords happen. Then I began to see what the tutor meant. Nearly 30 years later and I’m still thinking about it.

Here’s an example that I’ve just been thinking about from the last 8 bars of Manha De Carnaval:

| Dm | BØ E7 | Am | F |
| BØ | E7 | Am | ./. |

The iiØ V in the 2nd bar of this fragment consists of the same two chords as the iiØ V in the 5th and 6th bars, but the second instance goes at half the speed.

We mostly use iiØ V i in a sequence because V i might sound boring. In the second line, this might be justified. For the second bar of the first line, trying to play a phrase that makes both chords happen could easily sound gabbled and detract from the mood of the piece. Especially if you’re also trying to remember to play a ♮9 because that’s what we’ve all been taught to do on minor ♭5, because the ♭9 is dissonant.

If you’re an improver, or even an intermediate player, you might sound better if you learn to solo over sequences like this omitting the iiØ. Then there’s less to think about. We can rewrite this fragment as:

| Dm | E7 | Am | F |

Once you’ve nailed these changes, you could start adding the iiØ chord back in. But you probably shouldn’t try to make it happen if the result sounds frenetic. And the faster the tune is, the less you need it.

In Manha, if you treat the key as C major, the sequence Dm BØ E7 Am takes you via a slight detour (E7 is not in the key) from the ii to the vi of the key. It’s a common sequence, found in lots of tunes including I Thought About You, My Foolish Heart and Body And Soul. In his inimitable work Insights In Jazz John Elliott calls this the Autumnal Cadence (with credit to Phil Clark).

Here’s the penultimate line of On Green Dolphin St. It’s a doubled-up Autumnal Cadence, which is a sequence that you also find, for example, in Embraceable You and Whisper Not.

| Fm | DØ G7 | Cm | AØ D7|

(... | Gm C7 | Fm Bb7 | Eb |)

It’s doubled up because it turns the target vi chord into the jumping-off ii chord for another instance of the same sequence. Which means you start off in Eb and travel via Bb and eventually land on Gm which is the the start of a iii VI ii V I in Eb.

There’s a lot going on.

Maybe first learn it as:

| Fm | G7 | Cm | D7 |

In each case the dominant is a tone up from the preceding chord.

And to extend this, just keep going round the houses:

| Fm | G7 | Cm | D7 |
| Gm | A7 | Dm | E7 |
| Am | B7 | Em | F#7|
| Bm | C#7 | F#m | A♭7 |
| D♭m | E♭7 | A♭m | B♭7 |
| E♭m | F7 | B♭m | C7 |

It surprised me how unfamiliar this was on first trying it. But it sounds great when you get going. I’m still working on it.

3 thoughts on “Too Much Harmony?

  1. Nice post. Thanks for the plug. The more I work on Block chording, the simpler the harmonic progressions need to be. David Berkman’s chapters on reharmonisation really help. He goes from I IV I to complex jazz subs. The problem with most jazz teaching is it starts with complex jazz subs in place.

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