August 4th, 2011

Dealing With Non-standard Progressions

By Forrest

Non-Standard Jazz Progressions

Recently we received a question about non-standard progressions, specifically the type of progressions you see in Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson tunes:

When we’re learning, we go through a lot of bebop progressions and ii-Vs. But when it comes to playing more modern tunes (such as some Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter tunes), I feel like a good amount of my bop language starts to break down. By this I mean how do you connect distantly (if at all) related chords while still being melodic?

Dealing with these seemingly different chord progressions presents a challenge to those who have not encountered things of this sort before. Thankfully, upon further investigation you’ll understand how to use what you already know to effortlessly glide through these changes.

The chords make sense at close examination

In general, chord progressions have to have some sort of logic behind them to make them sound the particular way that they do. Upon first hearing, it may be difficult to understand how these less familiar progressions are constructed, however, work to simplify them and they’ll become clear.

Listen to Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti:

Here’s the first eight measure of Nefertiti:

Nefertiti Excerpt

Confusing? Let’s take a closer look. The first two chords are simply progressing in cycle movement. The qualities of the chords, major 7b5 and sus, and Herbie’s unique voicings are what give them their unique sound, but other than that, nothing out of the ordinary.

Measures 3 and 4 consist of a minor ii V progression located a half-step below the first two chords (measures 1 and 2). Again, it’s the quality of the chords, combined with Herbie’s specific voicings that give these chords their color.

The C7b5b9 moves to BMaj9. This is just tritone substitution. So, going back, we see that measures 3 and 4 are a tritone-sub of C# minor F#7 resolving to B in measure 5.

Measure 6 just slightly changes the sound of the chord from measure 5 by flatting the 5th.

We then move down a half step in measure 7 to play a minor ii V progression with similar voicings as used in measures 3 and 4. This minor ii V would naturally resolve to Ab minor. In the case of Nefertiti, it resolves to E major (in measure 9, not depicted). Ab minor seven is E major seven starting on the 3rd (Ab Cb Eb Gb is 3-5-7-9 of E G# B D# F#). In terms of composition, this fact allows for the chords to be interchanged.

Starting to see how the chords actually do make sense? Sometimes it takes a while to understand what’s going on, but take it one chord at a time and try to understand the progression through the knowledge you’re already familiar with; things like: cycle movement, tritone-substitution, ii Vs, and movement by half-steps.

Use the melody

“Let the melody be your guide”old saying

The hints to play lyrical melodies over virtually any tune are hidden in the melody. Learn it inside and out. Sing it. Internalize it. Understand it theoretically and connect that that theory to your ears. Take a look at the first 8 bars of the melody to Nefertiti:

Nefertiti Melody

Go through it and determine what chord tones he’s using. Then, train your ear to hear the subtle chord tone colors. Once you do this, start to improvise over these 8 measures, basing your ideas upon the melody. Play it nearly verbatim at first, just adding a few notes, or slightly change the rhythm. Listen to any of the masters play more esoteric progressions. Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Thelonious Monk. They all utilize the melody tremendously in their solos.

Just play the changes

The nice thing about these colorful progressions is that they do a lot of the work for you. All you have to do is express the harmony that’s already there in a clear way. On a standard like All the Things You Are, or a Blues, we’re constantly looking for ways to spice up the progression and make it more interesting. Here, there’s little you need to change. Just play the changes.

Of course you need to know how to play changes in a clear manner to do that, but if you can do that, then try approaching these more complex tunes in a very simple manner. Just play a note or two per measure that expresses the interesting colors of the chord.

For example, listen to Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock play over Maiden Voyage. Notice how they use only a few notes to express each chord. They are not running up and down scales. They’re just selecting a few choice notes within each chord.

Play over the bar line and anticipate chords

In the previous video, you’ll notice they habitually play over the bar line. This tactic moves your lines forward and helps connect chords in a smooth lyrical way, even if the chords are not related in such a direct manner, like a ii V.

One way to play over the bar line is by anticipating chords. I once asked Mulgrew Miller about how to connect chords that don’t seem that related. He uses an approach of anticipating the upcoming chord by three eighth notes as in this example:

Anticipate Chords

This effective technique will help connect any unrelated chords. You can find it in virtually all the music of the masters. Do not underestimate the power of this advice. It comes straight from Mulgrew.

Use standard language in a new way

The same language you develop for ii Vs, major chords, minor ii Vs, minor chords, dominant chords, and any other common situations, you can use over more complex chords as well. All you have to do is modify your language to fit these new situations. For instance, you could take a basic dominant line and adapt it to a dominant b5 situation by applying just a little creativity:

Modify Chords

There’s no rules. You could modify a line as much or as little as you like to fit this new situation. Change the intervals, change the rhythm, the articulation…anything you like. Let your ears be the judge.

Instead of modifying your langugae, another way to use language in a new way is to apply it to a different chord as in these two examples:

Different Chord


Different Chord2

Use common tones as pivot points

Common tones can act as a pivot point between to unrelated chords, forming a link to smoothly get from one to the next. In this example, the Bb is a common tone between BbMaj7(the root) and F#Maj7 (the 3rd). It’s used to smoothly transition between the two chords.

Common Tones

Just like anticipation, using common tones as a pivot point between unrelated chords is an extremely useful and powerful technique. Spend time learning to use common tones and the other techniques described in this article–using the melody, sticking to the changes, anticipation, and using language in a new way–to navigate non-standard chord progressions with ease. Gradually, with thoughtful practice of these concepts, you’ll feel just as comfortable on non-standard progressions as you do on the most basic progressions.

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