Berklee Today

Harmonic Distillation

By Jim Odgren '75

Jim Odgren is Assistant to the Dean of the Performance Division
at Berklee. His new CD, Her Eyes, features 10 of his
original pieces recorded with an all-faculty band that includes
Jim Kelly (guitar), Fernando Huergo (bass), Yoron Israel (drums),
and Odgren on alto saxophone. The disc was produced by Performance
Disivion Dean Matt Marvuglio. Visit
for more information

For many improvisers faced with harmonically difficult tunes, omitting parts of a chord progression or allowing a few changes to go by without outlining them in detail is a natural fallback approach. As I prepared my original songs to record for my Her Eyes CD, I wanted to help out the soloists by preparing more solo-friendly chord progressions.
Before the recording sessions, I decided that I should simplify, or generalize the chord progression to my song "Nimbus." For me, the best approach to finding a simplified solo-section progression is to go to a chordal instrument such as piano or guitar and play through the part of the tune that I want to change. I did this and listened to the chords to "Nimbus" as they originally occurred in the series and then determined which ones were essential to the harmonic character of the tune and which could be deleted. This yielded a simpler progression that provided more flexibility and more harmonic and rhythmic breathing room for improvisers (myself and Jim Kelly in this case). In the end, I was satisfied that the solo section retained the spirit and character of the song.

Example 1

Harmonic Density

Click to listen to
the musical examples:

In the first eight measures of "Nimbus" (following the introduction), almost every melody note is harmonized. Figure 1 shows the melody and chord progression of these bars. In the measures with the most active harmonic rhythm, I selected those chords that I felt best distilled the tonality and character of the tune. When you compare the chord progression that accompanies the melody (see figure 2) to the excerpt of the solo changes of "Nimbus" (figure 3), you can see the extent of the modifications I made to the song's chord progression for the solos. The chords that were deleted from the progression are those circled in figure 2.

Example 2

I also adjusted the chords that were written with eighth-note anticipations or delays so that during solos they would fall either on beats one or three of the measure. In my judgment, these modifications make the harmonic flow easier for the soloists.
When I showed my sketch of the solo chord progression for "Nimbus" to Jim Kelly, he came up with a perfect recommendation to further streamline the progression. In the fifth measure, he suggested using Fmin7(b5) instead of Emin7 (b5). I agreed that the Fmin7(b5) sounded like a better fit, although I'm at a loss to explain why. It just seems to be a better choice for maintaining the character of the original harmony of the song and aids the flow of the chord progression. Figure 4 shows the chord progression for the first eight measures of solo sections of "Nimbus."

Example 3

Chord Scales

After finalizing the solo chord progression, I began to practice on my saxophone and work on ideas and concepts for my solos. First, I practiced soloing over each chord individually until I could play over all of the chords of the progression. Next, I started to develop ideas on how to fill in the notes between chord tones. I wanted to utilize a basic series of chord scales that maintained as many common tones as possible when each chord changes.

Example 4

Figure 5 shows one set of chord scales that I thought worked well for the first eight measures of the solo section. Obviously, there are other possible scales that could be derived from this progression. I chose these particular ones because they included not only the chord tones and tensions indicated by the chord symbol, but also the notes of the melody whenever possible. Such a series of chord scales, of course, is only a starting point. Many other possibilities present themselves during a solo, and when the direction of the solo leads me elsewhere, I'll go that way. I always like to explore a tune's basic harmonic foundation on my instrument. I feel like I owe it to the song.

Example 5

Worthwhile Analysis

As I worked out the chord scales, I found that some of the changes in the solo progression maintained fewer common tones than others. figure 6 shows some of the chords and scales from the first eight measures of the "Nimbus" solo changes. I looked at these chords in great detail because they involved quite a few note changes. All scales presented in figure 6 start on either the notes F or E so that the comparisons are easier to see. For me, writing out a Roman numeral analysis helped to reveal the big picture of the key areas.

Example 6

To my ear, the first three measures sound as though they are in the key of G# minor. The chord in the fourth measure sounds like it was a connector or pivot chord leading into the next key area. Although the chord symbol is G diminished seventh in the context of the chord progression, the chord sounded and functioned more like a C dominant seventh, flat-nine chord with the fifth in the bass. The last four measures lean toward C Lydian as the tonal center. I hear the Fmin7(b5) chord (measure five) that Jim Kelly recommended functioning as a subdominant minor chord in C Lydian.

Example 7

For songs like "Nimbus" that have complex chord progressions, there are often several ways to perceive of the key areas. I have provided the analysis in figure 7. Special thanks go to fellow Berklee Professor Ed Tomassi who helped me to analyze it. While I'm sure that there are other possible analyses, this one is logical to me. Some of the tools and approaches presented here will enable you to write harmonically rich tunes with solo sections that will be a welcome sight to your improvisers.