The study of harmony on the piano is essential, especially if you want to expand your palette as a composer and improviser. Arpeggiation and scale/chord match- ing serve their purposes until you start repeating the same old tired, clichéd patterns over and over, or have no new ideas at all. Studying harmony as it appears on the piano gives you access to a colour palette and harmonic ideas that the woodwinds by their very nature don’t address.
One such idea, which completely floored me, was the “Sound” concept of jazz voicing introduced to me in college by Charlie Austin, a phenomenal jazz pianist and brilliant teacher from Edmonton, Alberta. Though this information had been around in one form or another for decades, and can be found in the styles of pianists Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, and McCoy Tyner, Austin’s conception and explanation of the Sound idea is unique, and is one potent example of what study of his and other systems can do for your playing.
The ‘Sound’ in its initial form is a major seven chord with a flatted 5th (fig. 1). It’s a nice, somewhat impressionistic chord on its own, but becomes much, much more in its flexibility of function. If you look carefully at the chord as it is spelled out on your right on the piano, you will notice a curious fact. If you play F maj.7 b5 chord and then hold down the D preceding it, you now have a D minor 6/9 chord (fig. 2). The F now becomes the 3rd of the D chord while the remaining notes spell out the 5th, a 6th, and a 9th. Even without the 7th it sounds like a solid minor chord. Moving on, we play the F maj.7 b5 chord again, and this time hold down the G directly next to the F we are holding and all of a sudden we are holding a G 13 chord (fig. 3). The F is now the 7th of G, the A functions like a 9th, the B is the 3rd, and E functions like a 13th. So we have two very nice ways of arpeggiating chords without always starting from the given root and merely outlining the standard chord, as this single chord works over D min.7 and G7 without any alteration. And as you have probably already noticed, Dmin.7 going to G7 is part of a “II–V–I“ progression (in C), probably the most common chord progression in jazz music. Now you have a new, more colorful way of efficiently moving from a minor chord to a related dominant chord that is not clichéd or mere repetition of whatever chords are written in your charts.
But that’s not all. Look at F maj.7 b5 again. See what it is hiding in plain sight? I’ll give you hint. It has something to do with the II – V – I progression. Scrutinize the chord, and if you don’t “see” it after a minute or two, keep on reading.
Very often, jazz musicians substitute certain chords with interesting replacements that not only work with the harmony of the progression, but also add a beautiful sound or interesting shape to the music. A common substitution is known as a tri-tone substitution, as you are taking out one chord, usually a dominant chord, and replacing it with the same or similar quality chord on the tri-tone (interval of a flat 5th) above it.
The F maj.7 b5 chord already contains a nice version of the standard tri-tone substitution that would be used if you were playing a II-V-I progression in C. What happens is that instead of playing Dmin.6/9 going to G13, you replace the G13 with a dominant chord starting on D. That way, the root of each chord descends with a nice “falling” sound. And the great thing is… if you put a D under the F maj.7 b5 chord … you now have a D 7#9#5 chord (fig. 4), a sophisticated tri-tone substitution for G13 without even having to move your right hand at all!
Another interesting use for the Sound chord in its basic form is as part of each chord in a minor II–V–I progression. If we choose the key of A for example, the first chord will be Bmin.11 5 (fig.5), an Fmaj.7 b5 over B. The dominant chord would be E, so we can play a G# maj.7 b5 over E, which creates an E 7#9#5 chord (fig. 6), followed by a C maj.7 b5 over an A (fig. 7), which creates an A min.6/9 chord – pretty cool stuff for any saxophone player not previously familiar with these methods.