View Full Version : Please explain Fourths Voicings in Jazz Guitar Comping

04-05-2005, 02:12 AM
I'm betting I don't get many takers here, and I'm not sure how many jazz players there are on the boards, but it's worth a shot. This might well be the most esoteric question ever asked on the dope. Here's looking at you, QED. :)

Actually, i'm hoping one of the theory dopers, like GorillaMan or Musicat might be able to shed some light.

First off, I'm a pretty comfortable and confident jazz soloist, with most of my familiarity in bop, west coast and gypsy styles. I'm very comfortable with the upper extensions in triadic harmony, diminished and altered scales, and the common 'jazz scales' - modal theory, the 'bebop' scale, Lydian Dominant etc.

What I'm having trouble understanding is how to apply fourths harmonies to various chords in an improvisational context.

Man, i see this is gonna be tough to explain without staff paper, but I'll give it a shot.

In C Major, from the root the quartal voicings would be:

1.) C F B E
2.) D G C F
3.) E A D G
4.) F B E A
5.) G C F B
6.) A D G C
7.) B E A D

I know these sounds, and on the guitar they make wonderful little clusters that are easy to move and grab on the spur of the moment. I even understand it with my ears - I know the sounds of this harmony.

But I can't figure out for the life of me how to approach this intellectually and utilize these for effective voice leading. Are they treated as altered voicings? Upper extensions? Grandiose sus chords? Funky 11ths?

Help! I feel like I'm really close to grabbing this whole concept, but one big piece of the puzzle hasn't clicked. It's in my ears, and in my fingers, but I don't know how to approach these little bastards knowledge wise - I don't know why I'm using the chord, I just know that i can use it 'kinda like an +11' or 'kinda like a m6' and so on, depending which scale tone I'm harmonizing at the time.

Extra credit: Anybody got any good tips on how to integrate chord soloing with these and dim, -7b5 or alt. clusters? Again, it comes down to voice leading, but I can't make these buggers fit together without scalar lines connecting them - I can't seem to comp chord to chord directly without things getting really funky.

Like I said, I doubt I'll get any takers, but I figured it's worth a shot.

And to whichever wiseass that is gonna pop in and say, 'It's jazz, dude, just play what you feel', here's a pre-emptive :wally


04-05-2005, 06:08 AM
Let's try this one in Cafe Society, since it's about the Arts.

Moved from GQ.

Biffy the Elephant Shrew
04-05-2005, 09:48 AM
They're clearly 11th chords: they contain all the notes that define the quality of the chord (root, third, seventh), leaving the 11th as a color tone.

As for smooth voice leading, if you ever heard me attempting to comp, you wouldn't ask me. But if it's a ii-V progression--say, E-A-D-G to A7--all you do is move that D down a semitone. The 11 functions as an anticipation of the root of the dominant chord.

04-05-2005, 01:07 PM
I'm not sure about the 11th chord thing. I mean yes, they clearly are, by the notes they contain, but that's not the way these voicings are commonly used by guys like Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, etc.

They almost use them to move around the neck, kind of like with diminished chords - they retain an ambiguous tonality that doesn't act like an 11th.

Bear in mind that these chords are not being used to wholly define the harmony - this type of chord comping is being used for chord substitution in chord solos over top of the harmonic structures laid down by the rhythm section. Joe Pass in particular used them frequently in this manner.

After thinking about it and playing with the concept for a couple of more hours, I'm starting to think that they're half 11th chord and half altered chord, in function.

I'd appreciate any more thoughts on the subject though!

Biffy the Elephant Shrew
04-05-2005, 01:49 PM
Semantic issue: I'm not sure how you're using the term "altered chord." To me that refers to a dominant chord drawn from the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale (e.g., B C D Eb F G A B). The characteristic tones are the raised and/or lowered ninth and the raised and/or lowered fifth*, none of which is present in the quartal chords.

*Yes, I know that's not technically right. It's jazz, dude.

04-05-2005, 02:15 PM
I wouldn't call them "clearly 11ths" either. Quartals are quartals. It's not really productive to analyze them in the terms of tertiary harmony—they don't work like that. And if you really did analyze them this way, the answer would depend on how many notes of the quartal you're using.

In a two-note C-F quartal, you just have a fourth.

In a three-note C-F-B quartal, I would call the F a suspended 4th, not an 11th. You might notate that as Cmaj7sus4 in tertiary terms, but that still doesn't accurately represent the chord for what it is. If you added a G to this chord, it would no longer be a quartal.

In a four-note C-F-B-E, you can call it a Cmaj7add11, but that's still misleading about the nature of the chord.

In a five-note C-F-B-E-A, you have a Cmaj7add11add13.

As far as I've always seen it, quartal harmony is always spaced out in fourths like this. I may be mistaken, but I've never seen inversions of quartals.

04-05-2005, 02:36 PM
A little more to add: quartals are supposed to be ambiguous. They're open, colorful chords and they give the soloist a lot of room to breathe. They're particularly fun to use in modal music. They're their own flavor of chord and, like I said before, thinking of them in terms of tertian harmony will only frustrate you.

Quartals are extremely flexible. As long as you select notes within your scale/mode (and you can even go outside these boundaries) almost any three-note quartal voicing will work over any root. For Cm7, C-F-B flat would be your obvious choice, but you certainly can use D-G-A or E-flat-A-D. You can move your harmonies in parallel up and down the scale. Play along to a song like Miles Davis' "Milestones," for instance. Over the D minor chord that's half the song, I'll just play (on the piano) quartals up and down in my left hand, throwing in the occassional tertiary. Quartals are very flexible, but a bit dull to stick with in an entire song (in my opinion.)

04-05-2005, 02:37 PM
I take a slightly more liberal view of altered chords, Biffy.

Your definition is accurate, but I also include in the term any chord with specific non-diatonic alterations - 7#11, mMaj9, as well as chords like Phrygian Dominant (13th chord with 13 as root)

Pretty much any chord that has funky things going on that can't be explained by diatonic relationships and trid upper extensions.

To solo over them, I use primarily the Lydian Dominant scale, the whole tone scale and the chromatic scale.

I tend to think very pianistically for a guitar player, especially when I'm working with a bassist - I rarely play a Cmaj7, for ex., but think in terms of an Em with C root.
I find it's a lot easier to think upper extensions on the fly that way. A Cmaj9 is an Em7 over C, and so forth.

The closest diatonic sound I can think of offhand for this quartal voicing stuff is like a Gmaj7/C. You can look at it like a Cmaj9 with a #4, or like a Dm6sus (with the seventh as the root), or treat it as a standard Gmaj7 and consider the bass voicing to be a passing tone, in some circumstances.

Man, this is tough to describe without notation or an instrument. I'm probably just muddying the waters trying to clear things up.

One last thought - the one tune off the top of my head that uses these quartal voicing really heavily is Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock. What choices do you make in soloing over those chords?

04-05-2005, 02:43 PM
Puly - thanks! I was probably trying to dig to deep intellectually on this. Actually, one of the tunes that's been driving me crazy is Pass' rendition of Milestones. I can play what he's playing, but i don't understand why he's grabbing that particular grouping.

they're not really inversion per se, but on the guitar neck each voicing moves up and down really easily, and basically from what I can tell, you pick the modal scale you're using for that chord or cluster, and use the quartal voicings from that mode.

Pass and Burrell in particular seem to just grab the voicing that sticks their target note on top of the stack.

Jpeg Jones
04-05-2005, 05:24 PM
I would say it definitely depends on whether you're using diatonic quartals (C,F,B,E) or perfect quartals (C,F,Bb,Eb).

If diatonic, well, you're pretty much establishing a tonal center the instant you throw in an augmented fourth, because the ear will sense a leading-tone happening. Play anywhere in that tonal area, no matter how temporary it is.

But, if you're using perfect quartals, you haven't necessarily established a tonal center anywhere. Instead, you might try sticking to the same "inter-quartal" intervals between chord degrees. Such as half-whole-whole (C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb) or whole-half-whole (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb).

04-05-2005, 05:29 PM
For Cm7, C-F-B flat would be your obvious choice, but you certainly can use D-G-A or E-flat-A-D.

Ahem...I meant D-G-C, of course.

04-05-2005, 05:41 PM
Puly - thanks!
Pass and Burrell in particular seem to just grab the voicing that sticks their target note on top of the stack.

That's kinda how I do it if I'm playing the quartals in my right hand along with the melody. If I'm doing "Milestones" with the chords in the right hand, and the left playing some improvised walking bass, I just take the melody note and build the quartal down two more notes from there (for a 3-note chord.) Like I said, I wouldn't necessarily keep the quartals going all the way through the melody line. For example, the final note in the phrase I might land on some cluster chord (leaving a little space between the melody note and the notes of the cluster) or something a little funky to contrast with the somewhat predictable quartals preceding. As long as you play with some conviction, you can make almost any chord sound appropriate.

One old jazz teacher gave me this advice on improvising: "Think of a note, and then don't play it." With proper phrasing and emphasis, it's amazing how you can make all the wrong notes sound right. While I'm not a great jazz improvisor by any stretch of the imagination (my strengths lie in more traditional blues and country/rock piano), I love playing "out." For example, if the harmony implies a C lydian, I love to start in C lydian with some melodic pattern, and then go up a half-step or tritone and continue that pattern in a completely dissonant key. It sounds very exciting to me. Eventually, you need to return to your tonal center, lest you lose your listener completely.

04-05-2005, 05:44 PM
Agreement with Jpeg Jones that distinguishing between diatonic and perfect quartals is important. For this post, I'm only referring to perfect quartals.

Taking a three note quartal and moving it up and down chromatically is very effective and ambiguous. For a more spicy effect, move it by minor thirds over a static root.

This makes for a very interesting soundfield (though you may get the hairy eyeball from the singer). Also check this out: let's say we start with a C-F-Bb quartal, arpeggiated from the bottom. Now keep on moving it up by minor thirds (so the roots of our chords outline a diminished seventh chord). You will find that this yields a complete trip around the Circle of Fourths. I think this is pretty nifty.

I recommend checking out the music of legendary jazz pianist McCoy Tyner (http://www.jazzcenter.org/tyner/), who has used quartal harmony extensively over the years.

(This topic makes my spell-checker freak out! :) )

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