Dealing With Non-standard Progressions

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

These types of tunes are notoriously difficult, as they don’t seem to use the same predictable chord progressions that other jazz tunes do. A reader asks:

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 ...

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