To me, this is one of those things that can really open up how you work with chords and help you create some beautiful-sounding progressions without having to rely on systems and rules.
It also touches on one of the things I don’t like about a modal approach to harmony, but I will try not to rant too much about that in this video. Instead, I am going to show you a way to think about the chords that will free you from just using substitutions and will help you create some beautiful harmony that really flows through the piece.
This is closely related to the type of thinking behind the Coleman Hawkins quote: “I don’t play chords, I play movements” which is often associated with Barry Harris even though that is also not the approach that I will focus on in this video.
Like most others then I was introduced to chord substitutions pretty early in my study. This was when I was still living in Copenhagen and spent most of my time playing Jazz standards in the street when I wasn’t in school trying to get better at guitar.
I was just beginning to figure out how to harmonize melodies and turn them into chord melody arrangements but still only relying on the basic harmony (B-roll – Looking in the real book, pointing, and then trying to play a difficult chord looking baffled)
For this, I am going to start with a few basic substitutions and then we are going to expand that into something much more powerful and creative.
Chord Substitutions 101 – Tritone Subs
The first chord substitution you learn is usually the tritone substitution, which I sometimes get the impression is taught because theory teachers don’t know what to talk about in the lessons.
A tritone substitution is exchanging a dominant for the dominant a tritone away because the two chords share the same core notes: 3rd and 7th.
So in a II V I in C major EXAMPLE the G7 is replaced with Db7. To give you this nice progression:
And you can see how the same tritone is in the two dominant chords which is why it is possible to switch them.
The best way to understand stuff like this is usually to hear it used in a song.
The basic version:
and with a tritone sub:
And this demonstrates two things: Tritone substitution(or any other chord substitution) doesn’t really make any sense if you don’t understand how it works with the chords around it. You are making the substitution to get the progression to sound different, and you need to hear it in the context to really get what is going on, otherwise, you are in this case, just playing an E7 (b-roll: E7!) and E7 sounds differently in a Blues in E compared to A Jazz ballad in Eb
The other thing you want to notice is that Tritone substitution usually works better when the dominant resolves, so a tritone substitute of a backdoor dominant is probably not going to sound fantastic.
Chord Substitution 102 – Major and Minor + Tritone 2.0
There are probably 3 more chord substitutions that are very common and that you want to know when you are at the stage of just swapping out chords and not really trying to think in harmony as a movement, which we will get to later.
#1 Tritone Dom instead of a II V in minor.
The first one is if you have a minor II V I like for example What Is This Thing Called Love
and you then replace the m7b5 chord with a tritone substitute resolving to the V, so in this case, Db7 moving down to C7:
The next two are about messing with how the ear expects to hear either major or minor in a II V I and then you do the opposite.
#2 a m7 instead of a IIø
If the ear expects to hear a dark-sounding m7(b5) chord EXample and instead you play a much brighter sounding chord that is a m7 with a 9th and or an 11th then that is a really nice surprise. Example
A good example could be Beautiful love. The first few bars usually sound like this:
And you can get a much brighter sound by using an Em7(11) like this:
This is pretty common and also something you can use in a solo, and there are actually even a few spots where Parker does this.
#3 a m7(b5) instead of a m7 chord
The other way around is also really nice! If you have a II V I in a song
and then make it darker by playing:
Beyond Chord Substitution
Jazz Harmony space B-roll (chord symbols flying in space?)
I guess it is sort of ironic that I started out the video by teaching chord substitutions when I actually don’t want you to think like that, so let’s go beyond that, first a bit further and then into Uncharted Jazz Harmony Space (B-roll)
When you can only think in terms of chord substitutions then you can switch one chord out for another chord, but it actually becomes a lot better if you start to learn to work with entire progressions and come up with other ways of harmonizing that section of the melody.
This was something I first started to get into when I was studying at the conservatory and had lessons with Peter Nieuwerf and Eric Gieben who showed me some exciting ways to work much more freely with harmony, and as you will see, some of these don’t make any sense if you think of them as of chord substitutions.
Let me show you an example, that sort of goes against one of the things that makes reharmonization most effective. I am going to assume that you know what Blue Moon sounds like so that you can hear how these chords are different, and then I am going to explain what is going on.
You can hear how this still works, and still has a flow but also how far away you can go on a very simple turnaround. And actually, you can approach it in a much more open way but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The first thing I changed was turning the Am7 chord into a C#dim.
That is just a secondary dim chord and not something special. In Bar 3, there is a lot more happening, because here the long G in the melody was original on Cmaj7 Am7, but now it is harmonized with Abmaj7 and Dbmaj7 leading into the Dm7 G7,
and Abmaj7 and Dbmaj7 are not exactly substitutions of Cmaj7 Am7, you could at most call them suspensions but since they don’t resolve back to C then that is also not really a description of what is going on.
The best way to see it is probably just to see it as something that
A/ sounds good with the melody
B/ fits in the key and the chord progression
Here they work because they are both minor subdominant chords in C major and of course sound great under the G in the melody.
In Bar 5 The Cmaj7 Am7 is turned into Bb7(#11) A7.
Again Bb7 is not really a substitution for Cmaj7 or related to Cmaj7. Instead, it is an example of choosing harmony that focuses on a different aspect of the turnaround: The chord that was there: Cmaj7 is just a tonic chord and it is a resolution when you land there, but the song keeps on moving, and the Bb7 only makes sense here because it keeps on moving to A7 and in that way is both a bit surprising but makes sense as the music continues. So you can look at the turnaround and think:
A- It is a tonic chord and then it moves on
B- It is a progression that needs to resolve in 2 bars.
And here I am using Bb7 because that works with the melody and really helps push towards the resolution in bar 7. In this last turnaround, I also changed the Dm7 to a D7, but that is just because I think that sounds a little better than the m7 chord with the melody.
So the big difference here is that I am much more free to use whatever chords I can get to work with the melody and the chord progression, not just looking at a chord and then thinking what chord fits instead of this.
This can give you A LOT of freedom, but before I get into that then let’s look at a way to set up a reharmonization so that it really stands out.
The Easiest Way To Make It Work
Timing is incredibly important for reharmonization and chord substitution. When you are playing a song and changing the harmony then what you are really working with is a way to go against the listener’s expectation. That is also what you hear in the Blue Moon example where I first play a turnaround in C to establish the song and then I start to change the chords.
If you start with changing the chords then there is less of an expectation and nothing for the listener to be surprised by:
And of course, that is possible but it is not nearly as strong. If you start listening for how people use reharmonziations then this is more common than you think, try to listen to Gilad Hekselman’s recording I Should Care where the 2nd half of the ABAC form starts with an F#ø Fm6 Em7 A7 because that is a new way to color the melody when it repeats in the 2nd half of the form. This is by the way a very common reharmonization used on a ton of songs, but let’s get into some more uncommon progressions and different sounds.
Everything Is Allowed!
Until now, I was just showing you some things that were changing a chord here and there and creating some beautiful sounds, but you can also just leave out most of the chords and completely re-imagine the chord progression, using “atonal” ideas and Giant Steps.
To have a place to start check out the first few bars of You Don’t Know What Love Is:
Let’s say that you played that as the first A and now you can change things up in the 2nd A:
Here I am starting with a different chord that is essentially the same Fm6 with a Bb in the Bas and then I sculpt the rest of the chord progression around an ascending bass line ending with Gbmaj7 instead of Db7, but this would really work well moving on to Gø that would follow it.
This next example is borrowing some ideas from Coltrane’s Giant Steps circle:
Giant Steps don’t really exist in minor, and actually, you don’t want to be tied down by some sort of system when doing this, so I am being very liberal with how I incorporate the chords, and I still want to play the song.
The idea I use is to start on Fm6 and then through E7alt go to Amaj7 which is pretty far away from Fm, and to move on to Db major and finally take another route to end on Bmaj7(#11) instead of Db7.
You can probably tell how this is really more about using the Coltrane cycle as a source of inspiration and not at all a system, but like this, the melody is still intact and you get something different.
A great place to put this to use is to work on chord melody:
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