A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Melody and Harmony – brief overview


This article summarizes the concepts that comprise my book on the subject (available through www.davidliebman.com/caris). Initially conceptualized in the 1980s and subsequently organized in book form in1990, this material serves as the basis for the course I teach in the subject at the Manhattan School of Music to master and doctoral students. As expected the subject involves a lot of technical material, but for the sake of a lay audience, the following constitutes a basic overview.

I developed these concepts in response to questions students posed to me at workshops concerning how one plays the “other notes”….those that stray from the stated tonality, a common technique found in the work of improvisers from my peer group. Musically, we were the first post-Coltrane generation, having in my case at least, seen him live many times and been inspired by his innovations, as well as the work of the various Miles Davis groups during the 1960s. Though I had no system in my formative years, working largely by ear, luck and a lot of trial and error, in tandem with pianist Richard Beirach, it became apparent that there must be some logic behind what I was playing.

What is meant by chromaticism?

For these purposes, playing in a chromatic style simply means a high usage of non-diatonic notes (those that are key oriented/consonant pitches) as the primary material for creating the required melodies and harmonies played in a typical jazz setting. It implies playing outside of the stated tonality that is understood as the basic framework for the ensuing improvisation. The artistry of this approach is dictated by the skill with which the improviser weaves these chromatic colors within and against the prevailing tonality creating another tapestry of contrasting harmonies and melodies. Chromaticism does not necessarily replace diatonicim, but co-exists alongside it.

If we compare chromaticism in music to other arts, there are many parallels, too numerous to enumerate here. In general, objects or words, whatever the given medium, are abstracted so that although there may be some semblance of the original, there arises something new and hopefully interesting to intrigue the listener, reader or viewer. In the end, the artistic goal is to have more choices during improvisation and composing so that a deeper emotional and expressive palette can be realized.

Implied skills for playing chromatically

Using a well worn cliché, it is understood that “one must walk before (s)he runs.” In jazz improvisation, this implies the clear and highly skilled ability to improvise on the standard harmonic/melodic structures which definitively state given tonal centers as the musical premise. “Standard” implies a set of chord changes (which may or may not modulate to various keys) that clearly demand the use of specific chromatic passing notes balanced with consonant tones, all of which have become the lingua franca of jazz. To reiterate, it is the coexistence of chromaticism and diatonicism which gives the improviser an endless variety of musical combinations. It must be acknowledged that inherent in this discipline is an entire gamut of accompanying skills, including but not limited to a highly developed sense of “swing” and syncopation in a jazz style as well as a convincing and personal sound emanating from one’s instrument.

Basic principles

Superimposition: This means that the improviser is thinking and hearing in a contrasting key or tonal center at the same time (s)he is operating in the given home key. In a sense, there are two scenarios operating at the same time; realization of what the underlying structure is while conceptualizing and executing other contrasting areas.

Tension and release: All artistic expression exists in the realm of tension and release (yin and yang, opposites, etc.) In traditional classical harmony, there is the dominant-tonic relationship which has guided western music for centuries. That same principle holds true for chromaticism. One can only create tension in relation to the eventual resolution which inevitably occurs at some point in the music. This is why the ability to play diatonically in a credible manner is essential to the chromatic approach.

Historical precedent

The history of Western classical music from the time of Palestrina and Monterverdi through the innovations of the twentieth century composers essentially follows the path of an increased use of dissonance or chromaticism. Tracing the harmonic concepts of Bach and Mozart through Beethoven and Wagner; from Brahms through Debussey and finally the era of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok reveals a seemingly straight path demonstrating the increased use of dissonance. In jazz, a case can be made for a parallel history from Louis Armstrong through Charlie Parker to John Coltrane and then artists such as Cecil Taylor and others. Of course, in jazz this path has taken place in less than one hundred years.

In the final analysis, a listener brings his or her own experience to the table when listening to music. To my mind, an expanded sense of chromaticism will enrich a listener’s experience and broaden one’s vision resulting in a deeper emotional as well as intellectual pleasure deriving from the music.