Marc Sabatella on the Harmonic Language of Standards

Mick, a trumpet/cornet playing friend of mine, and I were recently talking about jazz harmony. A while back Mick found a great resource on common patterns in traditional jazz (I wrote about it here, but the original page seems to have been deleted). That blog and our conversation reminded me of something put together by pianist Marc Sabatella called The Harmonic Language of Standards.  Sabatella’s discussion on jazz harmony was required reading for my jazz improvisation students. I think it’s a great summary of the harmonic language of jazz standards.

While only a summary of his more in-depth book, you can get quite a bit out of reading what Sabatella has made available for free on his web site. He has put together a very complete list of common chord progression patterns in a section about functional harmony. In my opinion, one of the most useful parts of it are Sabatella’s breakdown of common idioms. He divides basic chord patterns into five categories – cadential progressions, pre-cadential progressions, static progressions and turnarounds, transitional progressions, and modulations.

Just as we can usually break a song down into a handful of broad sections such as AABA, we can usually break down each section into a handful of these idiomatic phrases. The phrases I am talking about are usually around two measures each. At slower tempos they may be squeezed into a single measure, and at faster tempos they might take four measures each.

An understanding of these types of chord patterns really helps me memorize chord progressions because instead of thinking so much about individual chords I’m thinking of broader chord patterns. It also helps you come up with some new ways to think about chord progressions and reharmonizations.

Sabatella mentions an example he uses on how to apply these principles to composition.

I then discuss how to apply your understanding of chord progressions to substitution and reharmonization, using the standard My One And Only Love by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin as an example. Looking at just the “A” section, I first break it down into a series of eight harmonic phrases and then show how to go about performing substitutions using other idioms from the same categories as well as more direct application of the guidelines of harmony themselves.

This is a great exercise for composers. Take a tune you know and break down the chord progression by the common idioms. Make note of certain key centers and using those as a goal, write a new chord progression that continues to maintain the road map of common idioms. For example, if you take the A sections of rhythm changes you might start your A section on the tonic, write a static chord progression for three measures, transition to the IV chord in measure 4, then cadence back to I in measure 6. A static chord progression for 7 and 8.

Just to demonstrate, I came up with the following by intentionally being a little goofy with it and in the process I bent some of the parameters from the rhythm changes A sections. I often compose chord progression in this way, with target harmonic goals in mind and then try out different things randomly until I get something I really like. My solution:

|Bb7 Db7 |Cm7 Eb7 |Dm7 A7 |Abm7 Db7 |Eb7 E7 |Eb7 B7 |Bb7 Db7 |Eb7 Ab7|

[audio:http://www.wilktone.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Rhythm-A-Reharm.mp3|titles=A Section Reharm]

Not the greatest there is, but there’s some potential in there. Maybe I’ll come up with a bridge and a melody for it too and see what it develops into.

Try it out yourself. Read through Marc Sabatella’s Harmonic Language of Standards and then try reharmonizing standard chord progressions using those common idioms as a road map.

Dave

Thanks, Kim. Sorry about the sound file, the plugin wasn’t coding it correctly for some reason (I think perhaps a conflict between different audio plugins). I’ve fixed it, so you can listen to the MIDI realization of the chord progression now.

Dave

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