Jazz is complex. If musical styles were subjects in school, then Jazz would be Mathematics.
Do you think this is so? Many readers probably share this view. Jazz is usually considered an advanced style, something that you learn after you’ve successfully progressed through and mastered some of the `lesser’ styles of music.
However, lately, I’ve come to realise that this believe might be wrong, or is, at the very least, misleading. Jazz isn’t inherently complex; it’s just that people tend to make it that way.
It’s simple, but it ain’t easy!
Recently, I have been brushing up on my Jazz playing ability and theory. At some point, something `clicked’, I reached another level in my understanding of the style. Jazz isn’t as complex as I might have made it out to be; it isn’t easy, but like any other musical style, it is based upon some simple ideas and concepts.
I’d like to share my findings with you, in the hope that it might help you understand the structure of Jazz a bit better. If these concepts are obvious to you then more power to you!
Concept #1: Not all chords are created equally
Jazz uses so many esoteric chords: 13th chords, 11add4 chords, diminished 7th chords, et cetera. It can be hard to learn how to play them, and even harder to determine which one you should use, and when.
I used to be convinced that you couldn’t play Jazz properly unless every chord played was a complex one — the more esoteric the better. I used to believe that simply playing a seventh chord, or — heaven forbid — a plain-old major chord would not be `real Jazz’, whatever that meant! I was making things a lot more complex for myself this way, by creating this mental expectation of what Jazz should be.
The realisation is that not all chords are created equal. In essence, there are only a couple of fundamental chords (barring diminished variations): minor, major and seventh chords. The latter can be split into dominant 7th, minor 7th and major 7th chords. These are the basic chords upon which most (if not all) Jazz songs are built.
You could make do with just the fundamental chords in most scenarios. The other, more complex chords are all extensions to the basic chords. But you should remember that they are additions, garnish, if you will. The real flavour comes from the basic, fundamental chords.
Concept #2: The ii-V-I is everywhere
My Jazz piano teacher used to tell me this all the time — the `ii-V-I’ progression shows up everywhere in Jazz. I used to just take his word for it, but in reality I had trouble spotting it in songs.
That is, until I really started listening to the bass. It is important that you learn to recognise what a ii-V-I sounds like, in terms of the chord roots. Take some time to familiarise yourself with the three chord roots played in succession. Once you know this, and you listen to a song, you should be able to spot a ii-V-I progression when it is played.
The ii-V-I can pop up in the strangest places. For example, the `I’ might not be the actual key or tonal centre that you may expect. For example, say you’re playing a V-I cadence. We could make the V a I of a ii-V-I, turning the V-I cadence into a vi-II-V-I.
You can also piece ii-V-I’s together. For example, you can play the following progression: iii-VI-ii-V-I. Note how the first three chords, iii-Vi-ii, make up a ii-V-I by itself. This progression was made famous as being a part of Gershwin’s Rhythm Changes.
Concept #3: Chromaticism is a driving force
The chromatic scale is used a lot in Jazz, and perhaps most importantly in Jazz harmony — chords and stuff.
You can use chromaticism to smoothly transition between two chords or between chords in a progression. We do this by approaching a key note (or notes) in the next chord chromatically from the current chord.
The simplest, most common example of this is the V-I cadence. The major third in the V is a semitone (chromatically) away from the root of the I. This is what creates that tension/resolution. Chromaticism is also a big reason why the Dim7 substitution for the V-I cadence works so well (see my post “Cool Jazz Trick: Spicing Up the V-I Cadence”).
When we piece chords together, ideally we want them to blend together nicely, the transition needs to be smooth. This is where those esoteric chords come in handy. For example, you precede a Dmaj7 by playing an A7#5, where you would normally have played an A7. The augmented fifth in the first chord is a semitone away from the major third in the next.
Another very often used chromatic trick is the tritone substitution for the ii-V-I, where we substitute it for a ii-II♭-I. The chord roots go down chromatically and there is chromaticism going on between the sevenths and thirds, too. For example, play the following ii-II♭-I progression: Em7 – E♭7 – Dmaj7. Can’t get any smoother than that!
And that’s it folks!
I can’t stress the importance of these three concepts in understanding Jazz music. They certainly made things a lot simpler in my mind. Jazz isn’t as esoteric as people might think; it’s good to remember to Keep It Simple!
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