An Amazing Nerdy Chord Exercise
This exercise is probably one of the best ways to really explore and discover beautiful Jazz harmony and chord voicings, and it is one of my favorite things to do but I don’t really work on it that often. There are a few weird things about this way of practicing:
- It is amazing for learning harmony and voicings
- It is also incredible for developing your fretboard overview
- If you do it while comping in a band you should be fired, at least I would probably fire you.
I think I picked up this way of working from going to the Barry Harris piano workshops even before I started studying in the Hague, and it is also really fun to do with others if you are hanging out and playing songs to get dig into what is possible, some of the most beautiful details and tricks.
This is going to get a bit nerdy with chords, but I think you’ll find that it is worth it.
Why The Basic Exercises Are Not Enough
There is a problem with the way we practice and look at chords. Mainly because too much of it is about reducing things to exercises(Diatonic chords) and systems with inversions
Exercises like that are not useless but similar to practicing scales and arpeggios it is removed from the music, and you have to keep in mind that playing a bunch of inversions or exercises doesn’t mean that you can magically make the chords of a song sound amazing.
And often we don’t get much further than just using stuff on a II V I progression (II V I with drop2) which is fine, but there is a lot more happening in Jazz harmony than just II V I progressions, so that is nowhere near enough.
This exercise is more about taking what you already know and then exploring what you can do with that, and also just opening up what a chord is without being too restricted by theory and chord symbols.
Learning Is Easier When You Are Not Alone
In a way, I got the exercise or this way of working from the Barry Harris workshops. Going to the Barry Harris workshops in the Hague exposed me to two things that changed my musical and my real life. At the time I was living in Copenhagen and went there for the workshop at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague.
Of course, one of the things that changed everything was how and what Barry taught us which I have talked about many times, but the other aspect was probably just as important, I just never thought about it like that until I started working on this video, and I will return to why that might be something you want to keep in mind.
This was not about the large classes teaching how to make lines, but more about all the piano workshops in the evening which were much smaller and in smaller rooms (with a lot of people smoking because that was still a thing back then). In those workshops the topic was mostly specific songs and how to harmonize them, what to do with the chords and it was not a lecture or a lesson but much more an exchange of ideas and showing how you play something. The first year, I was there I could not follow a lot of what was going on because I did not know the theory and most of the songs, but the attitude of exchanging ideas and exploring the songs was inspiring and also made me realize that I needed to be in a place with more people who were exploring Jazz, and I had probably found the perfect place to for that.
Not Everything is A Chord!
We want to dig into the harmony and find some great ways to connect the chords, so let’s focus on a song that is not just a bunch of II V’s like “It Could Happen To You”.
Later I will understand why this way of working should get you thrown out of the band.
For the first 5 bars you could play these chords, maybe let’s start with shell voicings
Just to have a little bit more to work with maybe let’s use Drop2 voicings, and pay attention to how these chords are very much connected in a flow:
Like this, the basic chords are already flowing, but instead of just playing them in time and leaving it at that, you can also go over it rubato and find some stuff that
1- sounds amazing and 2- is easy to play in this chord progression.
The first chord change going from Ebmaj7 to Edim.
An easy way to add a bit of inner voice movement is to move from maj7 to 6 and then to the dim chord, you can look at it as a chromatic enclosure in the middle of the chord:
Of course, you can do a lot of other stuff and that is exactly what you want to explore, you use more voices to move to the Edim.
This one doesn’t work here probably because I am hearing the Bb in the melody in the back of my mind,
but maybe in some other song, it sounds great?
Beautiful Wrong Notes
As you see, I am not naming the passing chord,
and that is because I don’t think making it an independent chord makes sense, it is just voice-leading and more horizontal movement than a chord symbol. Here’s a way that you can use wrong notes to add a bit of counter-movement and a suspension going from Edim to Fm7
I am sure you would agree that, usually, Ab is a less-than-fantastic note on an E dim chord, but as you hear then it works really well here, and what I am doing is just moving the two top voices, one up and one down
and using notes from the scale that fits this dim chord: F harmonic minor.
Of course, you can also do great things with adding chords and using substitutions, but this way of really getting into the song opens up a lot of options, and if you are starting with a different chord then you might find very different but still practical sounds:
From A Static Voicing To Moving Music!
So you can do a lot with the chords and not have to try to name everything with chord symbols that have to make sense or follow some rule.
And, what you are doing and developing is your fretboard overview by seeing the voicing in the scale on the fretboard
and then using that to create movement and connect to the next chord
And, you could use a simpler version of this on the F#dim while also adding a little melody on the Fm7:
Obviously, you don’t want to get fired, but I am sure that if you work enough on stuff like this then you can learn to do some of it in real-time while you are playing, but to work towards that, then isolating a section of the song out and exploring what you can come up with will help you discover some great new things. The reason why I say that this exercise will get you fired is that I have seen both guitar players and piano players be very busy with the chords like this and in doing so, completely fail in being a part of the music. This is for practice, and NOT something you want to distract you when you are playing with other people, and working through stuff like this is still fun.
What you really need to work on this is having a good overview of the chords, not thinking in static grips but instead having a more flexible way of understanding chords, and you can check out how to develop that in this video:
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