Sep 16, 2013

Jazz Piano: Voice leading & Fred Hersch & Bach Chorales

When two chords have common tones and notes that move by step then the one chord usually moves very smoothly to the other.

Voice leading is the art of moving smoothly from one chord to another.

Arnold Schoenberg's voice leading maxim was THE LAW OF THE SHORTEST WAY - move voices along the shortest possible path.

Fred Hersch and Bach's 371 Chorales

There's a fabulous masterclass Fred Hersch wrote for Downbeat. The masterclass is about how traditional, tonal voice leading J.S Bach used in his 371 chorales applies to jazz. As far as I know these few master class pages are the only resource anywhere on Bach's voice leading and jazz piano technique.

Fred' very clear about why voice leading is essential (and not optional) for pianists:

Truly, the modern jazz piano approach stresses “voicings” (chords without roots) in the left hand and single-note lines in the right. At its worst, the left hand sounds like what I call “the claw” as it stabs out chords that are often played by rote. Such voicings usually aren’t heard clearly, due to the focus on the right-hand lines. They don’t help the lines and are often too loud. The hands hardly work together at all—partly because the lower part of the right hand is not used at all, as it is only playing single notes and has no chance to connect with the left.

The First Phrase of the First Chorale

Bach composed the chorales from Lutheran hymns that he placed in the soprano line.

When Hands Can't Reach

The chorales were written for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices - which means when they're adapted to instruments with keyboards there are difficulties that have to be overcome.

First, the four lines should be played so that soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sound as four moving parts and not as static chord voicings.

Second, there are a lot of tenths and elevenths and twelfths between the bass and tenor in the left hand. The solution: If your hand can't accommodate a 10th (or a larger interval) then redistribute the notes. It's perfectly fine for the right hand to play soprano, alto, and tenor and for the left hand to play only the bass.

Start Chords, End Chords, Passing Chords

The three chords in the first measure and the first chord of the following measure:

  • G major triad in root position - start chord
  • C major triad in first inversion - passing (connecting) chord
  • D major triad in first inversion- passing (connecting) chord
  • G major in root position - target chord.

The second and the third chord of the first measure are connecting chords to the G major triads on the first beats of the first and second measures. In other words, those four chords are starting and ending points with passing chords in the middle.

From Bach to Jazz

From the pickup chord to the first chord of the second measure - it's a message from Bach:

Dress up starting and ending I chords by putting IV and V in between

Try this with the first new melody notes of Out of Nowhere or I Remember April. Assign a chord to each note of the melody.

From Lines to Chords

Back to the first measure:

The chords are I - IV - V with IV and V in first inversion (both of them) - and a sharp applies to the F - the chorale's in G major. Let's look past the chord progression to individual lines - to in this case the bass and tenor only. What if:

  • the the G and the B (bass and tenor notes) lasted for a whole note? 
  • the second and the third chords (after that) filled the space of two half notes?
If you play - or sing - the bass line or the tenor line on their own you'll hear them as melodies. But the thing is the bass and tenor lines create chords - maybe better to say they imply chords.

The best of all possible worlds is when gorgeous lines come together into beautiful chords.

I - IV - V or I - ii7 - V (From the Style of Bach)

The chord that's labeled with C maj could just as well represent Am7 in which case it's true the root and the 7th (A and G) are missing from the chord. But that's ok. Those notes will show up elsewhere. Perhaps in an improvised line.

To point out the obvious: Those two note constructions do look like simple chord voicings. But to see them as voicings overlooks the fact they they begin as lines in the Bach chorales.

Understanding lines - knowing what to do with them and how they create chords - is the big idea.

An easy way in to work on small bits and pieces. Play the bass and tenor voices with left hand (in the example "From the Style of Bach") and improvise over that with right hand.

What's Next

A follow-up post on the law of the shortest way and lines and chords with more examples.

Comments, if you want to leave them, are welcome and invited.

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