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Altered chords in big band music


WesG

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So, you're comping along and the arranger calls for "C7alt". What do you play?

 

An altered chord is a diatonic triad or seventh chord that has had one or more pitches lowered or raised by a half step. By lowering or raising (altering) the chord tone you change the character and color of the chord. Depending on what pitches you change, you can even change its function.

 

So, I should change some pitches by a semitone. Presumably by writing "C7alt" he wants the major 3rd and the dominant 7th. I guess I can move the 5 up or down a semitone. Which way? And more importantly -- how do I know what the guitar and horns are going to alter?

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I know three things about altered chords:

- think "all the alterations". So b9, #9, #11, b13

- You can voice it (rootless) as 3, b13, 7, #9. It's the same as a 13th voicing of the tritone-substitution. So for C7alt, think F#13: E, G#/Ab, A#/Bb, D#

- The chord is embedded in the melodic minor scale of the b9. So all the notes E, G#, A#, D# are in the C# melodic minor scale.

 

(I posted this in the past but a quick Svengle didn't reveal my previous post).

 

Hope that's helpful.

 

Cheers, Mike.

 

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This drives me crazy. I gig with a big band maybe twice a year with maybe one rehearsal if I'm lucky. He's got two huge books with hundreds of charts and I have no chance to get familiar with anything but a few of them. I don't do them often enough to really tell what's happening with the horns on the alt's and my ears are not good enough to pick it up instantly except for the 5's, those I can hear. I'll do shells if I really don't know for sure because I'm certainly going to avoid any clashes if I can.

 

Bob

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I do a bit of big band music. Typically an altered chord contains the following;

 

1 - 3 - b5 - b7 - b9

 

You can drop the root or play it in the left hand or let the bass player take care of that.

 

If the chart is a funk tune, an altered chord may contain the following;

 

1 - 3 - #5 - #7 - #9

 

YMMV

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I play piano in a big band. We have 200+ charts. The chord progressions are way over written(compared to combo charts) to reflect all the other instruments movements.

 

I am not an advanced player. With that said I think of the b9 to be an everyday altered that seems to be something a little more casual than a #9.

If I go to a Imaj7 I'll think of a b9 before it. Certain points in a progression I will go to 7/#9/b13 especially resolving to a minor.

 

I can't think of a single chord in all of the 200 charts that simply calls out 7alt. The chords are all heavily described (spelled out) in quality.

 

I hope the pile on is not too severe because of my generalizing.

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It's not at all uncommon in a Thad Jones chart for the horns to be voiced with both the raised and lowered 5th and/or 9th. Thad was the master of dense, dissonant shout choruses.

 

I think the clearest way to wrap your head around "alt7" is to think "whole tone diminished" scale, so Calt7 derives from the scale C Bb G# Gb E D# Db C

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While on this topic, I have a question I'd like to throw in: are there any unwritten (or written) rules about altering chords? I mean if a chart simply says "G alt" and it isn't specified how, would you decide on whether to flatten/sharpen the altered notes based on what your ear says? Or would you follow a "rule" depending on the tune and the chords surrounding the altered chord? Sorry for semi-hijacking, OP.

 

 

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While on this topic, I have a question I'd like to throw in: are there any unwritten (or written) rules about altering chords? I mean if a chart simply says "G alt" and it isn't specified how, would you decide on whether to flatten/sharpen the altered notes based on what your ear says?

 

Not really any unwritten rules. I usually go #9 b13. That voicing convincingly conveys the melodic minor harmony aspect of it.

 

- The b13 tells you it's melodic minor harmony not diminished harmony.

- The #9 tells you it's not just an augmented chord.

 

Also, #9 b13 is a common sound and there are easy voicings for that chord, both in a left hand rootless voicing and in a two handed upper structure voicing.

 

Take a G alt:

 

Left Hand rootless: F A# B Eb with the F being the one below middle C

 

2 Hand upper structure: Use the major triad based on the b VI. In the case of G alt this would be Eb. So the voicing would be:

 

L.H. F B R.H. Eb G Bb

 

The beauty of that upper structure voicing is that you can invert that RH triad up and it still sounds awesome.

 

Easy Alt voicings.

 

If you wanted to voice your alt chord as a b13 with a b9, you could use the upper structure of #I minor, so for G alt you'd use an Ab minor triad:

 

LH: F B RH: Eb Ab B

 

 

I like the first one better (b13 #9 ) but they're both cool.

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Take a G alt:

 

Left Hand rootless: F A# B Eb with the F being the one below middle C

 

2 Hand upper structure: Use the major triad based on the b VI. In the case of G alt this would be Eb. So the voicing would be:

 

L.H. F B R.H. Eb G Bb

 

The beauty of that upper structure voicing is that you can invert that RH triad up and it still sounds awesome.

 

Easy Alt voicings.

 

If you wanted to voice your alt chord as a b13 with a b9, you could use the upper structure of #I minor, so for G alt you'd use an Ab minor triad:

 

LH: F B RH: Eb Ab B

 

 

I like the first one better (b13 #9 ) but they're both cool.

 

:2thu:

 

Thanks Mr Cressey. I've learnt a fourth thing about altered chords! One of the reasons I love this place.

 

Cheers, Mike.

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While on this topic, I have a question I'd like to throw in: are there any unwritten (or written) rules about altering chords? I mean if a chart simply says "G alt" and it isn't specified how, would you decide on whether to flatten/sharpen the altered notes based on what your ear says?

 

Not really any unwritten rules. I usually go #9 b13. That voicing convincingly conveys the melodic minor harmony aspect of it.

 

- The b13 tells you it's melodic minor harmony not diminished harmony.

- The #9 tells you it's not just an augmented chord.

 

Also, #9 b13 is a common sound and there are easy voicings for that chord, both in a left hand rootless voicing and in a two handed upper structure voicing.

 

Take a G alt:

 

Left Hand rootless: F A# B Eb with the F being the one below middle C

 

2 Hand upper structure: Use the major triad based on the b VI. In the case of G alt this would be Eb. So the voicing would be:

 

L.H. F B R.H. Eb G Bb

 

The beauty of that upper structure voicing is that you can invert that RH triad up and it still sounds awesome.

 

Easy Alt voicings.

 

If you wanted to voice your alt chord as a b13 with a b9, you could use the upper structure of #I minor, so for G alt you'd use an Ab minor triad:

 

LH: F B RH: Eb Ab B

 

 

I like the first one better (b13 #9 ) but they're both cool.

 

Spot on! That's a great way to boil it down.

 

Jazzmammal: On the bright side... if you run into an alt chord in your chart remember that the horns are probably spelling out the voicing - it's covered. I'd say you have a pass to noodle around on those bars, especially if you haven't had a chance to practice with the group much. Play a counter-melody line or even a bit of bluesy comping and you should be fine.

 

This stuff (arranging) was my major in music school. While I've seldom run into actual big band music in my career, the classes were very beneficial to my piano playing.

 

BTW The most fun I had reducing a big band tune for piano was this:

[video:youtube]

I used a snippet from it in most of my NAMM demos when I worked for Kurz.

 

 

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I have nothing to add about various voicings. But I do have a comment about playing big band charts.

 

First, if the horns are playing, let them define the harmonies. You can still chunk out the rhythm by doing what the late Freddie Green did on guitar: don't play the altered notes. Keep it simple so people can concentrate on why they came: the great sound from the brass sections.

 

Second, if the chart shows chord names, rather than notation, AND if the horns are not playing harmonies, then this is your time to listen with 80% or your brain and be creative with the other 20%. This is where a hip ALT voicing will be heard and appreciated.

 

Finally, big band charts, like everything else in life, can be good or bad. For the notated piano parts I can sometimes tell before we start playing if the arranger knows how to write for the piano by looking at the voicings. If the piano part is 'pianistic' I'll play it just as written. If not, this usually means the piano is playing horn voicings, often in parallel with the horns, I'm going to pull way back.

 

 

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