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Jazz Lessons | Reharmonization 101 | post message

A first look at reharmonization


First a disclaimer: I did not have keys when I made this lessons and so the midi files are all computer generated from the sheet music. Even so, you can still get a good general idea of what's going on.

In Jazz Piano, reharmonization seperates the men from the boys. It is something that comes with experience and the never ending, "Wow, that was cool!" type of discoveries that occur every day. In this section I'll go over some of the basic principles of reharmonization as I know it.

  • Leading Chords
  • 2-5-1 Substitution
  • Tri-Tone Substitution
  • Cirlce of 5ths

Leading Chords

A leading chord is a 7th chord that is 1/2 step above the chord you want to go to.

A leading chord is just what it sounds like. Take a look at the following blues snippit:

(midi link)

Normally, this first part of F blues would go like: || F7 | Bb7 | F7 | F7 ||

In classical music you learn about leading tones. It's all part of music theory which is something we ALL need to know about. These notes lead into the next melody note, but are not necessarily an integral part of what is going on. They are more of an embellishment to what is really important (the melody). If we reharmonize with leading chords, we are not changing the music in such a way that it ruins it, we are simply adding a bit of tension for a moment until we get back to the chord everyone expected us to get back to. Jazz is about tension and release, as is every performing art.

There will be times that you'll need to make the leading chord a minor 7th, or something else, but obviously you will need to practice this on your own to get comfortable with it.

2-5-1 Substitution

This type of reharmonization is useful when you have a 2-5-1 chord and you want to add color to it.

(midi link)

This above example is a basic 2-5-1 chord in the key of C. Now, take a look at a simple 2-5-1 substitution.

(midi link)

The example starts on the same chord, and ends on the same chord, but what are all those extra chords in there? This is a basic 3-6-2-5-1 turn around. You can use it nearly anywhere you see a 2-5-1. Experiement with this by trying it in your own lead sheets where you see a 2-5-1 chord.

The next example is also a 3-6-2-5-1. The only difference is the chord voicings. These are voicings that I might use in a performance.

(midi link)

This next example from the end of the A section in the tune, "On Green Dolphin Street", shows you what I mean. In the key of Eb, the original chords and the ones in most of the fake books shows the last two measures of On Green Dolphin Street to be an Eb chord. When we add a 2-5-1 to lead into the Fm7 at the beginning of the B section, take a look at what happens. Note that the C7 chord is altered to anticipate the following Fm7 chord. Always keep in mind what is coming next!

(midi link)

Now, we will take that same progression and alter it a bit further by adding the 3 and 6 chords to it.

(midi link)

Notice the progression into Fm. First we used a 2-5 (in the key of F) to get to the Fm, then in the next example we used a 3-6-2-5 to get there. If you had enough space, you could use a 4-7-3-6-2-5 to get there if you want, but you must use good judgement so it doesn't sound too formulatic. We are brushing on the circle of 5ths here, as some of you may have guessed. We'll be getting to that in just a little while.

Tri-Tone subtitution

Tri-Tone substition is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Simply put, you substitute the written chord with the 7th chord that is a tri-tone (a 4th raised a half step) away.

This is often the last reharmonization trick a jazz piano player will learn. The reason for this is not that tri-tone substition is the last trick in the book, it's just that it's so easy that a lot of players decide not to go any deeper. Of course, we aren't going to make any such decisions, are we?

Let's continue messing around with the last part of the A section in Green Dolphin Street. In this next example, I am going to take out the 6 chord, but leave the 3 chord. Keep in mind here that I am relating these chords to the key of Fm which is how the B section starts.

(midi link)

The 3 chord of Fm is Ab, and that has been left in as an Ab7. The 2 chord is a Gm, but we substituted the tri-tone for that and put in a Db7 instead. The 5 chord in Fm is the C7, but we also did a tri-tone substitution on that chord and inserted a Gb7. This is all in preparation for the Fm at the beggining of the B section.

Remember that accidentals (sharps and flats) are carried throughout the entire measure. When the next measure line occurs, then they are reset. If this is new information for you, it would be beneficial for you to take a basic music theory class at your local community college.

Circle of 5ths

The Circle of 5ths is nothing more than a term used to describe the 2-5 relationship between chords. D to G, C to F, F to Bb. This is very important for you to get a handle on. Many chord changes that you will find are related to this circle of 5ths in some way, and much of the reharmonization we do is related to it. The Jazz Theory book by Mark Levine talks about it in detail.

Using the circle of fifths is a great way to practice chord change patterns. Cm-F7, Bbm-Eb7, Abm-Db7, etc... Then, alter the chords in all the ways imaginable. Anything that sounds good to you, well, do it in 12 keys!

Want to see the circle of 5ths in action? Take a look at the opening bars of All The Things You Are, a standard we should all know. The first few bars ARE a piece of the circle of fifths, then there is a 2-5-1 into the key of C.

Have fun!

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