Are Polychords Problematic?

(Another teaching post for my students at NEC, more of ’em here)

Musical theory is bunk. Every truly great composer or improvisor forms a private relationship to the sounds that makes sense to the creator but not to the observer.

Jazz chord symbols are particularly cheap and impure. They were always shorthand, they were always meant to be changed in the heat of the moment.

I like to stake out extreme positions, and sometimes I argue for abolishing chord symbols entirely, citing Lester Young and Duke Ellington as two who ignored them. Of course, most contemporary jazz people would disagree. Recently I shared a bill with Carla Bley and her trio with Andy Sheppard and Steve Swallow. Her piano parts were completely written out: Pages and pages of beautiful pitches notated in equally beautiful script. To my surprise, there were also chord symbols in almost every measure. I kind of joked about this to Carla a bit, and she looked at me like I was crazy. “Oh, you should always include the chord changes,” she said.

When I transcribed Geri Allen’s magnificent “Dolphy’s Dance,” I notated my best guess about the very fast and abstract melody plus the obvious bass notes. I didn’t include chord symbols, but just put “rhythm changes” at the top and figured the bass clef would explain the rest. 

Last week, bassist Mats Ingvarsson sent me the first page of what Allen quickly wrote out for the changes to “Dolphy’s Dance.”

Dolphys-Dance geri

Geri Allen’s script; thanks to Mats Ingvarsson

In this moment I might have learned something about Allen and her approach. (“Every truly great composer or improvisor forms a private relationship to the sounds that makes sense to the creator but not to the observer.’)

I personally still use key signatures and “correct” enharmonic notation when writing music. Some of my greatest peers have teased me about this, saying I am still kissing the hem of the garment of the dead European system. I respond that if they want me to fucking sightread their fucking hard music, fucking use the right enharmonic notation so my goddamn small brain can relate the pitches to the key quickly enough.

polychord 1

one person’s opinion!

If the chart is nothing but chords, I still like seeing a key signature: After all, “D minor 7” means something different if it is in C, F, or G. (This is another reason I’m suspicious about the iRealBook, which lacks key signatures.) If I wanted to play B -flat rhythm changes with a bassist who didn’t know the form, I might write a bass clef and two flats before filling in the chord symbols, even if it was just on a piece of scratch paper.

Musical theory is bunk. There are plenty of truly great jazz musicians who write the “wrong” enharmonic spellings. In John Coltrane’s own chart of “Equinox,” there are E naturals and B naturals in the context of D-flat minor.

[Table of Polychords]

At some point, polychords became common practice in jazz. They are most easy to assess when the language at hand has several polychords binding them together, especially over a pedal point. “On Green Dolphin Street” by Bronislau Kaper and “Spiral” by John Coltrane are examples from the 50s jazz repertoire.

green dolphin st

Of the twelve major triads one can play over a bass note, many can be seen as standard harmony, while a few are “special cases.” (Minor triads over a bass note occur less frequently, perhaps because the ear has a more difficult time recognizing a minor triad as a separate entity then the easy blare of a major triad.)

C triad over C. 


Obviously, C.

D-flat triad over C.


Rarely used in European music before the 20th century, and probably only if the bass was “walking” down from the tonic to the sixth or fifth.

Db example

In the grand American songbag, this chord was shorthand for exotic, “Oriental” or “Arabian,” for example the old standard “Temptation” by Nacio Herb Brown.


George Shearing’s arrangement

If a 70s modal jazz tune has “Phrygian blowing,” then D-flat triad over C is right in there.

D triad over C.


In European music this dissonant 4/2 chord resolves to a tonicized triad in first inversion in either major or minor.

G min exmaple

Jazzers use it in the European fashion but it also occurs as a jazz polychord in “On Green Dolphin Street” and other places. Adding a B-flat gives the chord a bite of dominant and makes it notably jazzy. See below for “Jazz Student Blues.”

E-flat triad over C.


Obviously, C Minor 7, then and now. However, “On Green Dolphin St” is a good argument for that polychord “as is,” for the pattern validates a sequence of major triads.

E triad over C. 


This vertical sonority expressed high tension in late 19th century Europe. The recap of the opening movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony offers a widely spaced example. Liszt used it frequently: A few particularly sustained and exposed examples occur in the wonderful opening paragraph of “Valle d’Obermann.”

d' obermann

For Brahms and Liszt, this chord was a combination of tonic and dominant, where a dominant triad is heard over the third of the forthcoming minor chord. I’m reasonably certain that no other resolution was commonly used at that time.

In other words, in old Europe, E triad over C meant that you were already in A minor.

In jazz this vertical sonority has taken on it’s own kind of tonic quality, where E triad over C means that it is really C — or at least, that A minor wasn’t the automatic next stop.  This chord used to be humorously referred to in my set as “The Girlfriend Chord.” I first heard that unforgettable phrase at least twenty years ago. “When a solemn white male Brooklyn jazzer writes a moody waltz and names it for the woman he is dating, he is sure to include at least one Girlfriend Chord.” 

More on this controversial sonority (now renamed the RomaNtic Chord, with the capitalized N in honor of the raised fifth of the scale) below….

F triad over C.


In European music this is second inversion, and usually resolves to C (frequently C dominant before heading back to F) or a stepwise motion (a deceptive cadence to D minor or B flat).

F example

Jazzers use this chord just like the Europeans all the time, and we also have a familiar  associated pedal point sequence: The ending phrases of many standards in F are played as F over C, D minor over C, G minor over C, C7.

G-flat triad over C.


A rich and beautiful sound that is frequently heard as a colorful dominant with the addition of an E and even a G. Occurs in European music in late 19th century onwards; a staple of Strauss, Debussy and Stravinsky (see the famous Petrushka chord).

Jazzers know it extremely well as the tritone substitution. It also comes in handy for a half-diminished chord, McCoy Tyner might play a C triad over F sharp on the first bar of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge.” 

G triad over C.


Old Europeans would resolve this dissonance to the bass in either major or minor.

C example

Conventional jazz might touch it occasionally for a Debussy-type effect (triads of the scale parallel in a row)…


…but we generally add an E and call it a major ninth.

However, in the more triadic form it is frequently heard in rock, pop, gospel, singer-songwriter, etc.

soft rock

A-flat triad over C.


In Europe this is simply first inversion, jazzers use it that way too. There are surely more “pure polychord” examples in jazz but it probably only comes up in pedal point circumstances, like if the bass moved from tonic to dominant in “On Green Dolphin Street.” 

A triad over C.


Rarely occurs in European music without the addition of a B-flat to make it rich dominant, except in Stravinsky’s Neo-classical pieces (and other composers working in that style) where there is a deliberate point of using “wrong” notes in Baroque-ish counterpoint.

In jazz, the dominant form with added B-flat is everywhere, the pure polychord less so.

B-flat triad over C.


Europe didn’t use this folksy chord much until the rise of late 19th-century French and Russian composers. There is a juicy example in the op. 50 Chopin Mazurkas:

chopin maz

It is a key sonority for modal jazz; Miles Davis’s second “Milestones” features this chord, as does Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” Chord symbols would say C7 sus or G minor over C as much or more often as Bb over C. (Musical theory is bunk.)

B Triad over C. 


Heard quite often from 19th century Europeans as a melodic dissonance, usually with the B resolving down to A for a diminished chord.

dim ea

It’s also used that way in familiar jazz standards, at least in the sheet music, like in bar two of “I Remember You.”  This example offers the full diminished chord supporting the top melody note, but the European functionality is the same.

I Remember You

Of course, in jazz, we often spurn diminished chords, and replace these suspended moments with II/Vs. There’s nothing wrong with that…but I find this to be an interesting topic, and believe it is still possible to find fresh harmonizations of standards by going back to the sheet music. Have you looked at the original Victor Young harmonization of “Stella by Starlight” recently?

Red Garland used this bitonal polychord for shocking endings. Herbie Hancock loved this polychord as well, perhaps because it was a natural fit for the octatonic or diminished scale, one of Hancock’s favorite melodic devices. The final menacing chord of “The Sorcerer” is a straight G triad over A-flat.

[The Nasty Chord and the RomaNtic Chord]

Many jazz pieces in the 70s followed Herbie Hancock’s lead to give B triad over C a tonicized or at least standalone quality. For this rest of this essay I’ll call this unrepentant vertical sonority the “Nasty Chord,” for it is used to guttural and fierce effect in hot blowing situations. 

The other extreme polychord is E triad over C, often written as C maj7 #5, the “RomaNtic Chord” as described above.

Herbie Hancock was also key in the development of the RomaNtic Chord. “Iris” by Wayne Shorter and “Pee Wee” by Tony Williams (but I suspect “Pee Wee” was harmonized by Shorter or Hancock) are moody waltzes with evocative names. Both of the first recordings with Miles Davis feature Hancock navigating sustained RomaNtic Chords placed alongside wide-ranging complex harmony.

The Nasty Chord and the RomaNtic chord help define the jazz played by David Liebman, Richie Beirach and many others in the 1970’s.

It is easy to namecheck Liebman and Beirach because they got in at the ground floor of jazz education, wrote method books, and taught many disciples. I personally owe a huge debt to The Duo Live, a book of Liebman/Beirach performances painstakingly transcribed by Bill Dobbins. I looked at that volume again recently and was stunned by how much I took from it at a tender age. 

Third Visit

“Third Visit” played by Liebman and Beirach begins with six Nasty Chords and two RomaNtic Chords


At least some of that kind of polychord aesthetic was continued by the Young Lions of the 1980s. Burnout music like Wynton Marsalis’s “Chambers of Tain” would use the Nasty Chord, especially in the piano comping, and “Dienda” by Kenny Kirkland is a moody waltz with polychords, concluding with the fattest RomaNtic Chord imaginable. Like everyone else, I’ve long admired the famous Branford Marsalis recording of “Dienda” with Kirkland — but I also suspect that if Kirkland could have turned the piano chair over to Herbie Hancock for that number, we would have heard Hancock work to reframe that F triad over D-flat, rather than simply play it “as is” the way Kirkland always does.

All that 70s and 80s music was beautiful and passionate. However, digging out the harmonic information contained in Liebman’s A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody or the best Young Lion recordings is not as important as understanding the work done by John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and the rest of the 60s jazz greats. I encourage my students to be aware of all periods in the music…but to make sure to study the source material.

The joke about the RomaNtic Chord (“When a solemn white male Brooklyn jazzer writes a moody waltz and names it for the woman he is dating, he is sure to include at least one Girlfriend Chord”) lands because we all know that your average Brooklyn white jazz dude thinks he’s hipper than he really is. At the most basic level, resolving a II/V to a RomaNtic Chord (Dmin7  / G7 / C maj7#5) really locks in the aesthetic. 

The Nasty Chord is a bit restrictive, but at least it offers easy access to the associated diminished scale. The RomaNtic Chord just sits there, nearly as immutable as Thelonious Monk’s whole tone scale. It’s very hard to turn the RomaNtic Chord to fresh account in the wake of 70s and 80s jazz. Indeed, I suspect Hancock himself understood the potential problems right away, and on “Pee Wee” and “Iris” makes a point of undoing the blockiness of the RomaNtic harmony even in the first choruses of both performances.

(It is important to note that McCoy Tyner rarely plays the Nasty Chord or RomaNtic Chord “as is,” at least compared to Hancock, Chick Corea, Beirach, and many others. As I’ve written before, Tyner’s incandescent harmonic system defies European analysis.)

There are no jazz polychords on any of the 14 records I made with the Bad Plus. Now that I’m occasionally a sideman again, I’ve encountered charts on gigs where the composer has maj7#5 chords. The RomaNtic Chord! Encountered in the wild! The first time I had to play one I really kind of panicked. But then I remembered Brahms and Liszt. When it was time to blow on C maj7#5, I played melodies in A minor, and the result fit my own taste a bit better.


[Jazz Student Blues]

A kind of polychord logic is one way piano voicings are taught to inexperienced jazz students. It’s very easy: play the third and seventh in the left hand and play a triad on top. It’s a fun way to learn some fabulous jazz coloration, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.

Common polychord logic examples for C dominant, with D, E-Flat, A, G-Flat, and A-Flat triads placed over the third and seventh:

blues voicings

At the same time the student is grasping this idea, they are learning their first jazz form, the blues. Therefore, naturally, the student will use one of these voicings right away on the blues form.

The problem? Hardly any canonical performances by great jazz pianists use these chords when starting out on a chorus of blues.

Suppose you have a chart of a good beginning level tune to learn, something like “C Jam Blues.” There are four bars of C7 written on the chart. Sadly, there’s something wrong about each of these polychord logic voicings for “C Jam Blues.” They are either too tense or spaced incorrectly.

If I were playing with people I didn’t know, this might be the chord I’d play on the first bar of “C Jam Blues.”


I’d offer up something like that because I think it’s sort of like something Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, or Horace Silver would play.

When I’ve gone into the lower level schools, I’ve heard the student pianists playing the following structure over and over again on a simple blues:


Sure, this is a great concluding dominant chord. One of the best! Duke Ellington or Henry Mancini or whoever will end a song with a fat complicated chord just like this. But in the middle, when the song is just ticking over, it’s just too thick. It is nearly impossible to voice lead this C dominant to F with natural European logic. 

Now that I’ve written this, I have no doubt that someone on the internet will show me a case where a legendary jazz pianist is using exactly this voicing on “C Jam Blues” right out of the gate. Well. Music theory is bunk. The great jazz pianists were great partly because of how they could ignore European harmony as well as appropriate it. Every serious player needs to have their own opinion about these matters, it’s part of how you acquire style. 

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