Harmony and Theory Department

Yesterday I declared at an end the discussion of alternative approaches to improvisation, with a proviso: “Unless someone out there has a new take on this matter.” If you’re just joining us, the focus of the dialogue (or diablog) was the late tenor saxophonist Bill Perkins. The inquiry was into how much he knew about chords and whether he elected to play outside of them in spite of his knowledge, or because he lacked knowledge. Vibraharpist and teacher Charlie Shoemake responded to my original post about Perkins’s continuing growth and adventurousness, as did critic Larry Kart.
When accomplished composer-arrangers like Mike Longo and Bill Kirchner — theoreticians and talented soloists — weigh in, it would be rude and irresponsible not to allow them the virtual floor. Therefore, the discussion is reopened. (It’s wonderful to be your own editor and publisher). Let me suggest, even if you are not educated in theory and harmony, that you follow along here because the gist of what our guest experts offer can improve our listening ability, regardless of whether we know an F minor 7th chord from a Harmon mute. First, this communique from Mike Longo, leader and pianist of the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble.

Just a note about the harmonic discussion centering around Bill Perkins, especially in connection with the comparison to Wayne Shorter in terms of the use of notes that are apparently not in the prevailing chord structure. Wayne, like many of today’s contemporary players, has embraced 20th century harmonic thinking which is rooted in intervalic playing. Once intervalic logic has been activated, notes that appear to be outside the spelling of the harmonic structure seem to sound related. This is because the logic of intervals has taken over.
For example, one may play an interval sequence that outlines an Fm7 chord and then play the same sequence a half step up and it will sound related to the original chord, even though on paper it may appear to be the tones of an F#m7 chord being played against an Fm7. In fact, it is merely a sequence of the intervals just heard, deflected up a half step. Therefore, the ear accepts it as related. These are practices employed by 20th century composers such as Bartok and Stravinsky and are outlined in a book by Vincent Persichetti called 20th Century Harmony which has become quite an influence on many contemporary jazz musicians.

In addition to his composing, arranging and playing, Bill Kirchner is a band leader, annotator (in depth) of Mosaic boxes, historian and editor of the invaluable Oxford Companion to Jazz.
In jazz, improvising “outside the chords” goes back more than 50 years. For an early example of “sideslipping” (Jerry Coker’s term, I believe), hear Lennie Tristano’s 1955 recording of “Line Up” (based on “All of Me”). Tristano frequently uses phrases a half-step away from the basic chord scales. George Russell also pioneered in jazz bitonality in his writing as far back as 1949–hear his big-band charts on “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” (for Buddy DeFranco)* and “Similau” (for Artie Shaw).

In the early ’60s, John Coltrane extended this practice and probably did more than anyone to make what saxophonist Dave Liebman calls
“chromaticism” (in a jazz sense) part of the basic harmonic language
of this music. When playing on tunes like “Impressions,” Coltrane would superimpose phrases in several different tonalities on top of a basic tonality (e.g., D minor). Also, what’s called intervalic playing became popular; for an example of a tune written in that style (in this case, fourths), check out Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance”. Go to any jazz school in the world today, and you’ll hear this stuff coming out of the practice rooms.

Bill Perkins, being an intellectually curious man, checked all this
out in depth and to an extent incorporated it into his playing. However, Perkins came out of the Lester Young tradition; Young and
most of his disciples, as Charlie Shoemake pointed out, were “ear
players” in the best sense. Whatever they knew or didn’t know about
chords (Al Cohn, for one, knew a lot), harmony really wasn’t the
primary feature of their styles. Rather, it was melodic (linear)
playing, usually on simple changes. When I listen to Zoot Sims, I
don’t listen for a dazzling harmonic conception; he of course had
other virtues.(Though Stan Getz could play well on harmonically
challenging tunes like “Con Alma” when he wanted to.)

So, if Perkins once played an A natural against an F minor 7 chord, he could have made a mistake, or he could have been sideslipping to
produce an intentional momentary dissonance. Context and melodic
intent make an enormous difference. As pianist Jim McNeely once
remarked about his tenure with Getz, you don’t go to a player like
Getz and tell him that such-and-such a note doesn’t work against a
certain chord; a strong, well-placed melodic phrase usually will
override harmonic considerations. A great player can make “wrong”
notes work. As the Lunceford record said, “‘Tain’t Whatcha Do, It’s
the Way Thatcha Do It.”

By the way, for those seriously interested in these and similar
matters, I recommend Dave Liebman’s book A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody (Advance Music).

I won’t again make so bold as to say that’s the end of this conversation. Let’s see what happens.
*”A Bird in Igor’s Yard” is neary impossible to find on CD, but this link takes you to a box set that allegedly has it. Good luck, and let me know if you find it.

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