Category Archives: FunJazz Piano Lessons

finding 5-note 2-hand voicings for half-diminished locrian chords

While focusing on a section of AfuriKo’s recent arrangement of “Kassai” during practice yesterday, I came across a mi7(b5) chord that calls for the locrian chord scale. Remembering Frank Mantooth’s approach in his Voicings for Jazz Keyboard inspired me to research possible 5-note 2-hand voicings for this chord.

So let’s quickly jot down a major scale and list all possible Quartal (Q), Generic Dominant (GD), and So What (SW) voicings that can be built under each scale degree (top note):

major harmony voicing types screen shot 1

The results are summarized in the table below:

voicing type top note
Quartal 1, 4, 5
Generic Dominant 2, 5
So What 3, 6, 7

The next step is to find suitable candidates to aurally represent our half-diminished locrian chord! It feels natural to go with those that:

  • sound best individually when trying them out against the root (C in the key of Db major) in the low register of the keyboard;
  • sound best in the context of a minor II-V-I.

You’ll notice that most of the eligible voicings include all three guide tones (namely b3, b5, and b7), which seems coherent since these notes characterize the mi7(b5) sound. One of the voicings, however, features b3 and b7 only (no b5), but still sounds strong as a mi7(b5) chord (to my ears…) so I went ahead and included it here, too.

1) The Generic Dominant voicing built underneath scale degree 2 has all four chord tones (C, Eb, Gb, Bb) and the 11th (F). Here it is notated below followed by its four inversions:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 4

Two of these inversions contain the interval of a b9. They sound dissonant and not quite appropriate for a mi7(b5) chord, so let’s go ahead and rule them out. We are left with the following three solid-sounding voicings for Cmi7(b5). From the top note down:

  • Eb Bb F C Gb
  • F C Gb Eb Bb
  • Bb F C Gb Eb

Incidentally (or not!), these notes make up the F insen pentatonic (F Gb Bb C Eb), which reveals itself as a very interesting scale to solo over Cmi7(b5).

2) The So What voicing built underneath scale degree 3 is slightly more adventurous, containing only two of the guide tones (Bb and Eb) and three tensions: the b9th (Db), the 11th (F), and the b13th (Ab). Its inversions don’t seem to function so well (again, these perceptions are of course subjective and there are no hard and fast rules…) as a mi7(b5) chord so let’s just keep the following chord, from the top note down:

  • F Db Ab Eb Bb

Now, it turns out this particular set of notes corresponds to the Db major/Bb minor pentatonic, which is thus also a valid choice to solo over Cmi7(b5).

3) The Generic Dominant voicing built under scale degree 5 contains all four chord tones (C, Eb, Gb, Bb), as well as the b13th (Ab). Here it goes with its inversion:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 6

Two of the those voicings (labeled Ab7 above) have a very distinct dominant color, but we can definitely use the other three as strong sounding half-diminished locrian chords. Spelling them from top to bottom, we have:

  • Ab Eb Bb Gb C
  • C Ab Eb Bb Gb
  • Gb C Ab Eb Bb

These notes (Ab Bb C Eb Gb) constitute the Ab dominant pentatonic scale.

4) The Quartal voicing built under scale degree 4 and the So What voicing built under scale degree 6 are in fact inversions of each other:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 5

Although the Db here creates the interval of a b9 with the underlying root (C), it is OK to go ahead and list all inversions for this chord as possible mi7(b5) voicings because b2 is a characteristic note of the locrian mode. From the top note down, we have the following five additional possibilities for Cmi7(b5):

  • Gb Db Ab Eb Bb
  • Ab Eb Bb Gb Db
  • Bb Gb Db Ab Eb
  • Db Ab Eb Bb Gb
  • Eb Bb Gb Db Ab

This last set of notes uncovers the Gb major/Eb minor pentatonic, yet another option to solo over Cmi7(b5).

To sum up, here are all twelve previously found half-diminished locrian voicings:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 8

And finally, let’s put them back in context! I have chosen minor II-V-Is with either V7(b9) or V7alt as the dominant chord:

major harmony voicing types screen shot 7


29 Oct. 2019

The in pentatonic scale (E F A B D) is also contained within the major scale and can also be used effectively to derive 5-note 2-hand voicings for half-diminished locrian chords (Bmi7(b5) in this case). The way to do it is to play the first scale degree (E), skip the second scale degree (F), play the third scale degree (A), skip the fourth scale degree (B), etc… until you’re playing all five notes simultaneously, divided between both hands. You will end up with the voicing E A D F B, and its inversions (F B E A D, A D F B E, B E A D F, and D F B E A). Some of these include the interval of a b9 within the voicing (between the notes E and F) but this doesn’t matter (in my opinion and experience) as the flatted second scale degree is a characteristic note of the locrian mode.

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comping practice on AfuriKo’s “Sorsornet” harmonization

Sorsornet is a rhythm from the Boke region in Guinea. The chord progression came from harmonizing Mamady Keïta‘s version (on his album Nankama) of one of the traditional songs that go with the rhythm (AfuriKo‘s arrangement will be featured on the duo’s upcoming album).

The chords I used for comping in this video are mostly 5-note 2-hand jazz voicings. I’ve notated some of them for your consideration below:

Sorsornet comping practice

And here’s a short explanation of how each one of the 12 notated voicings relates to its corresponding chord symbol:

  1. C#mi7: inversion of generic “So What”/quartal voicing for minor chords;
  2. F#13: generic voicing for dominant chords (right hand plays a 3-note quartal voicing from the 5th down while left hand plays guide tones);
  3. D#mi7: generic “So What” voicing for minor chords with 5th as top note;
  4. E6: inversion of generic quartal voicing for major chords down from the root “E”; can also be considered a generic quartal voicing down from the 5th “B” with the root instead of the 7th in the bottom;
  5. F#9sus: inversion of “So What”/quartal voicing for sus chords;
  6. F#/G#: ditto;
  7. G/A: ditto;
  8. F#2/A#: upper structure triad (UST II) from C# melodic minor; the parent chord scale to this F#2/A# chord is A# locrian #2 (VIth mode of C# melodic minor);
  9. Ama7/B: inversion of “So What”/quartal voicing for sus chords;
  10. Ama7(#11): “So What” voicing with #11th as top note;
  11. F#mi9: generic “So What” voicing for minor chords with 5th as top note;
  12. C#: upper structure triad (UST II) from F# melodic minor; the parent chord scale to this C# triad is C# mixolydian b6 (Vth mode of F# melodic minor).

NB: the very cool djembe part (with additional foot shakers/rattles) in the video was performed by courtesy of wonderfully grooving percussionist Akiko Horii!

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away from the roost: reharmonizing the “Chicken”!

This article is also available at, along with a downloadable Reharm Worksheet (PDF).

Here are a few notes about Flavio Lira‘s “THE CHICKEN Travels the World,” a cool multi-groove arrangement of “The Chicken.” Flavio invited me to record it over at Lessonface’s studio in New York’s West Village earlier this year, along with some fantastic musicians, most of whom teach on the platform as well. Each of us also got to record a short tutorial (see right below) to showcase something we played in the video. Fun times!

Now, let’s try and make the most of the present article and focus on things I did not mention in the tutorial video…

  1. The original piece (“The Chicken” by Pee Wee Ellis) is a funk tune with a bluesy feel. Although its chord changes don’t follow the most common 12-bar blues format, the tune does possess one of the foremost features of the blues: the appearance of the IVth degree as a dominant chord (Eb7) in its 5th bar. Besides, blues scales and minor pentatonics (Bb minor in particular, as in the famous break in bar 12 for instance) suit the chord grid perfectly (for more on the use of blues scales, take a look at this post, an in depth analysis of a solo by one of Mr. Ellis’ close fellow funkateers!);
  2. Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 3.10.51 AM

  3. Where the keyboard solo starts in the arrangement, Flavio deliberately penciled in a BbMa7 chord (instead of the original Bb7), which gives this section a more “tonal” feel (as opposed to the original “bluesy” feel, characterized by some amount of ambiguity and crunchiness caused by the presence of both the major third – from the Bb7 chord – and the minor third – from the Bb minor pentatonic or blues scale frequently used to improvise over Bb7). Flavio further enhances that sense of tonal harmony with a II-V resolving to Gmi7, the VIth degree in the key of Bb major. D7 is what we call a secondary dominant resolving to that Gmi7, and the Ami7(b5) is D7’s related II chord (incidentally, it is also the VIIth degree in the key of Bb major). The Bb7 preceding Ami7(b5) is a sub V of VII (in other words, the tritone substitute of E7, which would have been a “regular” secondary dominant to Ami7(b5));
  4. Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 3.19.40 AM

  5. By now, our ears may well have been accustomed to a Bb major tonal context… And when the Eb7 chord finally hits (at the pinnacle of a nice rhythmic ascending chromatic motion), it can quite plausibly be heard as a modal interchange chord (the IVth degree of Bb dorian) rather than the characteristic IV7 blues chord mentioned earlier.

To sum up, we have a deliberate choice of Flavio’s to depart from the original blues context of the tune and delve into a more tonal realm for this section of his arrangement. Our chicken is, at the very least, cage-free, and at best truly multi-dimensional, traveling through various grooves and harmonic devices! More seriously though, this classic reharmonization technique has in fact been used since the bebop era. Take a jazz standard like “Au Privave” for example: it is a perfect illustration of how Charlie Parker departs from a simple F blues progression to get to a tonal 12-bar form in the key of F major, complete with II-Vs, secondary dominants, and modal interchange.

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transcription: “Uptown Up” – alto saxophone solo by Maceo Parker

Transcription of Maceo Parker's solo on Uptown Up (page 1)
Transcription of Maceo Parker's solo on Uptown Up (page 2)

Methodical analysis of the melodic content

Passages¹ where Maceo uses the major blues scale:

  • [ bar 0 – bar 3/beat 3 ]: Bb major blues
  • [ bar 5/beat 3 – bar 7/beat 1 ]: Bb major blues
  • [ bar 8/beat 3 ]: Bb major blues
  • [ bar 8/beat 4 – bar 11 ]: C major blues
  • [ bar 13/beat 4 – bar 15/beat 1 ]: C major blues
  • [ bar 17 ]: Bb major blues
  • [ bar 24 ]: Bb major blues

Passages¹ where Maceo uses the minor blues scale:

  • [ bar 3/beat 4 – bar 5/beat 2 ]: Bb minor blues
  • [ bar 7/beat 2 – bar 8/beat 2 ]: Bb minor blues
  • [ bar 15/beat 2 – 16/beat 2 ]: C minor blues
  • [ bar 18 ]: Bb minor blues

Passages¹ where the major and minor blues scales are intertwined:

  • [ bar 12 – bar 13/beat 3 ] with, in particular, an ascending chromatic motif (D# E F F# G) [ bar 12/beat 2 – bar 12/beat 4 ], which includes notes from the C major blues scale (E) as well as the C minor blues scale (F, F#). Both scales are indeed commonly used to improvise over the C7 chord;
  • [ bar 16/beat 3 – bar 16/beat 4 ], a short ascending chromatic motif (D D D# E F) including notes from both the Bb major blues scale (D) and the Bb minor blues scale (D#, E). This sets up the return to the Bb7 chord in bar 17 (anticipation)²;
  • [ bar 19 – bar 20/beat 3 ], a phrase based around two very similar ascending chromatic motives (C C# D D# E F and C# D D# E F), the second of which is played an octave above the first. Again, notes from both the Bb major blues scale (C, D) and the Bb minor blues scale (D#, E) are featured here, being tones of choice to improvise over the Bb7 chord;
  • [ bar 20/beat 4 – bar 21/beat 3 ], the presence of the notes C (from Bb major blues) and Ab (from Bb minor blues) together in this segment evoke the Bb Mixolydian mode, another natural choice to improvise over the Bb7 chord;
  • [ bar 21/beat 4 – bar 22/beat 2 ], here we have the pattern C# D D# E F again, with the note D from Bb major blues, and the notes D# and E from Bb minor blues (C# and F are common to both scales);
  • [ bar 22/beat 3 – bar 23 ], a diatonic descending motif (Ab G F Eb D), which again clearly evokes Bb Mixolydian. While Ab and Eb belong to Bb minor blues, G and D belong to Bb major blues (F being common to both scales).

Key takeaways

Based on this transcription, two distinct patterns, characteristic of Maceo Parker’s style, stand out when he intertwines the major blues scale with its minor counterpart:

  • an ascending chromatic motion from scale degrees 2/#2/3 up to scale degree 5;
  • a descending diatonic (Mixolydian) motion from scale degree b7 down to scale degree 3.

In the first half of his solo, Maceo sets up the tone of his improvisation by shifting between the minor blues scale and the major blues scale, utilized as strictly separate entities. Beginning in bar 12, he gradually throws in more and more segments where both scales seamlessly intertwine. Between bars 19 and 23, he finally crafts a longer melodic sequence featuring both extensive chromaticism as well as diatonic ideas from Mixolydian, before wrapping up with a strong, effective major blues statement (bar 24).

Practice tip

Although Maceo’s rhythm, phrasing, and expression aren’t discussed in this post, they are also really hip and crucial to the powerful effect of his solo. Don’t neglect imitating these elements as accurately as possible on your instrument while practicing this transcription. Becoming familiar with the notes and scales is only half the work (at most)!


¹ Like in mathematics, the square brackets turned towards the inside (like this ” […] ” as opposed to this ” ]…[ ” ) indicate that the bar/beat numbers signaled within the brackets are included in the passage under consideration.

² The F# played on bar 17/beat 1 does not belong to either of the Bb blues scales. Rather, it is a lower chromatic approach of the following note G (itself scale degree 6 of the Bb major blues scale). This part (bar 17/beat 1) can be seen as an extension of the ascending chromatic motion initiated in bar 16/beat 3.


Parker, Maceo. Funk Overload. What Are Records? 60032. 1998.

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pentatonic possibilities 1: major and minor pentatonics

Pentatonics are 5-note scales. Technically, any ordered sequence of 5 notes can be called a pentatonic. But the most common and widely used pentatonic is without doubt the one obtained by reordering a series of 5 notes stacked on top of each other in fifths (for example, the series “C G D A E” gives us “C D E G A” once reordered). This particular pentatonic comes in its “major” form (C D E G A), and its relative “minor” form (A C D E G).

So, what do I mean by “pentatonic possibilities?” Well, pentatonics tend to break up the diatonic quality of 7-note major and minor scales because of their intervallic content. So, to create fresh melodic shapes and give a more edgy feel to your lines while improvising over changes, you might ask yourself: what pentatonic scales can I use over these chords? Chords derive from modes, and modes from harmony types, so the question may be rephrased as: what pentatonic scales can be extracted from the various harmony types?

For the purpose of this particular post, I will limit myself to what I call the “common” or “global” pentatonic scale (the one discussed in the first paragraph). Let’s have a look at major harmony first. The pentatonics listed in the first and last column of the table shown below are extracted from the key of C major (C D E F G A B). Their “major” forms are listed in the left-hand side of the table along with their relative “minor” forms on the right-hand side, and the roman numerals represent the scale degrees for each pentatonic:

major harmony pentatonic possibilities
C D E G A I Maj. pent. <=> VI min. pent. A C D E G
F G A C D IV Maj. pent. <=> II min. pent. D F G A C
G A B D E V Maj. pent. <=> III min. pent. E G A B D

Natural minor harmony is equivalent to the Aeolian mode. Therefore, the pentatonic possibilities in natural minor are the same as in major harmony (the roman numerals indicating the scale degrees, however, would have to change due to the shift to relative minor).

Now, let’s have a look at melodic minor harmony. It turns out only one pentatonic scale can be extracted from this harmony type. It is shown in the table below in the key of C melodic minor (C D Eb F G A B):

melodic minor harmony pentatonic possibilities
F G A C D IV Maj. pent. <=> II min. pent. D F G A C

Finally, neither harmonic minor nor harmonic major harmony bear common pentatonic possibilities, due to a flatted 6th scale degree in both instances. However, some interesting “exotic” pentatonics can be derived from those harmony types…

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Charlie Rouse on “Monk’s Dream” / nonchord tones and melodic triads

My favourite passage from Charlie Rouse‘s solo on Thelonious Monk’s 1962 recording of Monk’s Dream – Take 8 is made up of the four closing phrases below (Charlie’s final statement right before the piano solo starts):

Monk's Dream, Charlie Rouse_C

Most of the soloing is built on chord tones here: the emphasis is placed on the notes that make up the lower part of the changes (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th) as opposed to the tensions (9th, 11th, and 13th). It is interesting however to pay close attention to the use of nonchords tones, and to the various triads – interestingly all arpeggiated in a descending motion, and mostly in root position (RP) – that emerge to define a distinct melodic contour.

Nonchord tones:

  • Db in bar 1 (technically the “second” measure here: the very first measure shows the 3-beat pickup to the first phrase and we’ll number it “bar 0”) is a passing tone approaching the following C from above (upper chromatic approach);
  • A# in bar 3 approaches the note B (which, as the major 7th of the following C chord, is itself an example of harmonic anticipation) from below (lower chromatic approach);
  • the first E in bar 5 can be seen as a lower chromatic neighbor tone of the two Fs it’s surrounded by, although E is technically the flatted fifth of Bb7(b5), and could arguably be considered a chord tone as well;
  • D# in bar 5 is a lower chromatic approach to the following E;
  • the notes A (diatonic note to the E7sus/B chord) and G (chromatic note since it doesn’t belong to the E mixolydian scale from which E7sus/B derives) in bar 7 form an diatonic-chromatic enclosure, surrounding the following Ab; such nonchord tones are also commonly referred to as changing tones;
  • both Abs in bar 8 are upper chromatic neighbor tones;
  • the first F in bar 8 is a lower neighbor of the G, which when struck against the Ab7 chord becomes a bold sounding nonchord tone itself!;
  • Ab and F# in bar 9 form a chromatic enclosure of the following G.

Melodic triads:

  • Eb+ (RP) over C and F7 (bar 2);
  • Bb (2nd inversion) over Bb7(b5) (bar 3);
  • C- (RP) over F7 (bar 4);
  • E- (RP) over C (bar 6);
  • D- (RP) over F7 (bar 6);
  • C (RP) over F7 and E7sus/B (bars 6-7);
  • A- (RP) over E7sus/B (bar 7);
  • Bb- (RP) over Ab7 and G7 (bars 8-9);
  • Db (2nd inversion) over G7 (bar 8).

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getting into the altered sound

Let’s take a look at a few things that can be done when an altered dominant chord presents itself in a tune (e.g. Eb7alt). The first thing to know is that the altered chord derives from the altered mode, otherwise known as mode VII of melodic minor. But to break out of the diatonic sound of the scale and gain a little freedom with it, here are a few tricks…

There are 5 different triads that can be used as numerators (the denominator being the basic chord sound, i.e. combinations of chord tones 1, 3, and b7) to get a solid sounding upper structure triad voicing for an altered chord:

  • bIImi
  • bIIImi
  • bV
  • bVI


You can then combine both minor triadic upper structures and both major triadic upper structures to form two hexatonic scales, which can be used as interesting melodic devices:

  • bIImi / bIIImi
  • bV / bVI


Now, if you take a closer look at both these hexatonics, you’ll notice that they have five notes in common. These notes make up a pentatonic scale (bV major pentatonic, a.k.a. bIII minor pentatonic), which can also be used as an even more angular melodic device.


Click “Download File” below to hear the midi examples notated above. The full PDF document is also available here. Enjoy!

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musical meditation technique: strengthening the mind’s ear

By knowing words you do not know the language. What you know is the outside language; the inner language is known by knowing the language of ideas.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Healing Papers

Meditative practice (i.e. playing music within yourself) has considerable benefits when learning a piece of music. Incidentally, it can also come in handy whenever your instrument isn’t within immediate reach (for example, if you feel like practicing whilst traveling, or if for health reasons you must avoid overusing your hands or wrists and refrain from playing for a while…). Following the advice of French pianist Jean-Claude Henriot (my mentor back in the days when I was a student at the Conservatoire in Évry), I recall making use of this technique in order to prepare for classical piano end-of-year exams and recitals.

All you have to do is choose a piece of music which, to the best of your knowledge, you are close to having committed to memory¹. Then play it in your mind as precisely as possible. “Hear” it in great detail, “feel” the touch of the piano². For beginner/intermediate pianists, Bach’s Inventions work really well because they consist of only two contrapuntal parts — not too arduous (particularly at slower tempi), but just challenging enough to try and hear simultaneously… Of course, you can choose virtually any piece of music. When a passage seems unclear, go back and “replay” it in your mind again, (much) slower if necessary. Repeat it as many times as needed, just as you would when practicing on your instrument, until you’re able to hear each note, each rhythm, each item of phrasing or expression, with utmost precision.

This kind of practice certainly requires sharp concentration, and thus works best in a calm environment. I used to go on long walks in the fields near my parents’ house to do this. Natural settings such as mountains, forests, or bodies of water are perfect for such meditative activities… As many of us live in cities though, any location where you’ll be able to enjoy some piece and quiet and remain undisturbed for a while will do just fine.

It may take some time to grow accustomed to turning your attention within yourself and practicing inwardly. But don’t give up; patience is key here! If practiced thoroughly, the benefits of musical meditation will certainly be felt upon returning to your instrument as soon as the following day (it’s often a good idea to allow the mental exercise to fully sink in overnight). Overall, your knowledge of your chosen piece of music will deepen considerably. As you rely less on muscle memory and more on hearing inwardly, your true memory, which stems from the heart, will take charge. No longer will you struggle to remember what notes to play. On the contrary: a sense of freedom will pervade your playing and enable you to wholly concentrate on delivering a vibrant message, with full expressiveness and musicality.

So the language of ideas cannot be heard by the ears alone, the hearing of the heart must be open for it.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Healing Papers


¹ By doing this exercise, you’ll likely find out that you were in fact relying on muscle memory too much — if not exclusively — before, particularly when playing the very sections that need the most polishing and internalising.

² This also works for non-pianists of course, as the goal is to develop the inner musical sense, in order to complement (or, should I say more accurately, provide a foundation for) the more familiar feeling of making music in the physical world. Just mentally recall the sensation you experience when playing your particular instrument.

cantabile style playing: practicing both legato and staccato

I’ve recently been working on most of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Two-Part Inventions as a kind of warm-up for the fingers and the ears (I learn them by heart and usually go through several first thing in the morning or at the beginning of each of my piano practice sessions). As I was playing No. 3 (D major) today, I realized I mostly was using legato phrasing and decided to venture into a staccato rendition of the piece. With the change of expression (staccato versus the former legato phrasing), I found myself much less self-assured: my memory failed me and I had to refer to the music on a couple of occasions. This, to me, was an indicator that I wasn’t hearing the melodic lines as clearly as I thought I was able to. Indeed, I don’t think my memory would have been caught off guard in that manner if a had been hearing them strong. So in addition to being a useful technical exercise, practicing cantabile style playing using both legato and staccato phrasing seems to be yet another great way to strengthen one’s inner hearing, and thus a very musical exercise. Highly recommended!

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why it’s a good idea to practice soloing with the left hand while comping with the right hand…

To improve rhythmic independence? Of course. But also:

  • it might lead you to use different voicings than the ones you usually use for comping. Sometimes a voicing might be too low and sound muddy when played with the left hand in the lower part of the keyboard, but the same voicing played higher up will sound OK due to the absence of low interval limit restrictions;
  • the left hand is generally weaker and slower than the right hand. Such technical restriction forces you to rely more on musicality, inner hearing and singing when improvising with the left hand. When you then go back to improvising with the right hand, it feels a lot easier! Musicality is now right at your fingertips, with the greater technical ability of your strong hand available to serve it.

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