Recently, Kenny Werner gave a harmony master-class to a roomful of eager students and an equally eager Mitch Haupers. It was freaking mind blowing, if you haven’t seen it I urge you to head to his facebook page and give it a look. There’s also a similar chapter in Kenny’s “Effortless Mastery” dvd…there’s no doubt in my mind that Werner’s a stone cold genius.
The focus of Werner’s master-class is that voice leading can connect chords, which seemingly have very little in common, in such a way that they make perfect sense. He demonstrates this by having members of the class call out random root notes, assigns different chord qualities to each root, then makes incredible music from it…over and over, using different inversions, adding melodies…and this is all within the first few minutes. Honestly…go watch it.
Now this got me thinking, (after I’d reeled my jaw back in) that there are different ‘levels’ of voice leading. I’ve spent years with my head buried in Mick Goodrick’s multi-coloured phonebooks, which are completely diatonic…but what Mr.Werner is peddling here is what I’m gonna call ‘pan-diatonic’. It doesn’t just stick to one key, it’s a lot more real-world and streetwise…tunes don’t just stick to one key, so why should an approach? I’m in no way saying that on approach is better than another, just that it’s worth noting the difference and that it kinda jumped out.
The chords the class chose are C maj7#5, E maj7#9, A maj7#11 and F#Phrygian (b9).
This is where the physical limitations of the guitar throw up a big neon sign, I’ve had to be fairly ruthless in my note selections (pretty much a root, 3rd, 7th and a colour tone) but the notes I’ve picked get the point across (please, feel free to pick your own notes that you feel outline the given tonalities). If the diagram is read horizontally you get different inversions for each voicing, if it is read vertically from the top to the bottom you get the voice led chord progression.
The other thing worth noting about voice leading is that it kinda relies on context (on seeing the chord as part of a progression)… often, the tendency with a lot of musical analysis is to ‘freeze’ a chord, to see it out of the context of a progression. Voice leading requires you to see where the chord has come from and where it’s going to, if some of these chords are played in isolation they may sound a bit harsh (harsh is okay) but when you hear how each chord moves into the next chord you become aware that if you just had a bunch of chords with no dissonance…well, life would be boring.