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Wheelerisms: An Analysis Of Kenny Wheeler’s Harmony

Martin Gladu

Introduction

“I do like a lot of my compositions, but in the end I don't feel like I really own them. If you like, I have been lucky to tap into some source and picked them up, and I got them before anyone else did.” Kenny Wheeler

Described as impressionistic, melancholic, and austere by the press, Canadian composer Kenny Wheeler’s idiosyncratic style epitomizes these same ideas at the heart of any composer’s own raison d’être: identity, unicity and emotion. And although his melodies shine by their own wheedling lyricism, it is his harmony that has garnered the most praise. Understandably so: the way in which his themes fall on the supporting yet discrete harmonic sequences commands attention and study.

Call it the Immaculate Conception of Wheeler’s composing, this uncanny ability to marry “soppy, romantic melodies” 1 with hauntingly gripping chord changes remains shrouded in mystery. Does it come from his study of Hindemith? the teachings of Richard Rodney Bennett? or perhaps from the time spent in big bands, immersed in voicings and contrapuntal lines of different densities and textures? Hard to say. Moreover, evidence has shown that his composition routine is all but scientific: “The way I work is to get the melody first, and that’s the hard part. Then I try to get some chords around it,” he explained 2 . If anything, this method of composition seems to rely more on trial-and-error, experimentation and experience than it does on voice-leading rules, conventions and other prosaic processes (disclaimer: I have not benefited from Wheeler’s tutelage nor have I seen him compose. What I did though was pester those he taught, and diligently analyzed the scores he gave them.) That said, there is as much to learn from the music itself than there is from direct observation, private tutelage and participant interviews. With this in mind, I conducted an investigation of Wheeler’s music with a deliberate focus on what I call Wheelerisms, in other words, his harmonic tendencies. Upon completion of the analysis, I concluded that, despite the fact that his compositions do indeed exemplify the canons of modal jazz, an argument could nevertheless be made to the effect that a portion of his harmonic language could be analyzed from different analytical perspectives. In short, I found that the modal jazz tag did not comprehensively explicate neither its extent nor its structural substrate.

In clear, I posit that, if one looks at the music from a different theoretical perspective, what sometimes appear superficially as the imprint of modality can be conversely argued as creatively-spun constructs rooted in the founding theories of tonality. That said, my objective is not to diminish the impressionistic, modal aspect which pervades his music, but add to its analysis that of functional harmony theory, as well as other concepts set forth in the following section. His fondness for polychords, extended harmonies, pedal points, ostinatos, and deliberate avoidance of standard progressions and chord types, all

bear the tenets of modal jazz, but looking at the canvas from another angle reveals the more conventional principles in the organization of the music. Like the painter Monet, who depicted nature using the same techniques of classical drawing than his contemporaries, but with a flitting, myopic brushstroke, Wheeler mixes the old with the new to gripping effect.

Riemann’s Theory of Tonal Harmony: A Bit of Background Information

The New Harvard Dictionary Of Music defines Functional Harmony as:

“A theory of tonal harmony developed by Hugo Riemann according to which all

harmonies can be analyzed as having one of three functions: tonic, dominant,

subdominant (

of IV, V, and I respectively, and thus as having the functions subdominant, dominant, and tonic. III can also function as the “upper relative” of V and thus have the function

)

Scale degrees II, III, and VI are often interpreted as the relative minors

dominant, as does VII (

)”

3

According to the basic rules of chord substitution, all these triads - and, by extension, their diatonic, 4-note incarnations - are deemed interchangeable. For example, a Dmaj7 who functions as a Tonic can be substituted for an F#min7, a Bbmin7 who functions as a Subdominant can be substituted by a Dbmaj7, etc. The same principles apply for minor keys. But because of its proximity to the tonic’s first inversion, one must note that many theorists view the III as a Tonic function, calling it the Tonic Counter Parallel. The latter view is used throughout the paper.

Because their harmonic canvas was imported from classical European works, Riemann’s theory allows for an easy, instantaneous analysis of Tin Pan Alley songs, jazz standards and bebop tunes. On the other hand, its use in contemporary jazz works such as Wheeler’s makes many theorists shriek, and that, for the mere reason that most contemporary works are modal. That said, I find that if they are utilized for heuristic, pedagogical and/or mnemonic purposes, the use of such processes of reduction, simplification and generalization is deemed both reasonable and receivable, and in this respect, Riemann’s theory appears the most useful. As I will try and demonstrate, Wheeler’s harmonic system, while modal in many regards, can nevertheless be viewed theoretically - with the aforementioned purposes and processes as a backdrop - as based on Reimann’s simple precepts. However, to be most effective, this argument requires that it includes as part of its elaboration other elements of the tonal paradigm, namely those pertaining to the following:

- Tonicization and Secondary Dominants;

- Modulation, more precisely, the Direct kind (ie: the unprepared, pivotless type of modulation);

- Cadences, particularly the Perfect and Deceptive kinds;

- the four major modes of western music (ie: Major, Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor);

- modal interchange.

In sum, the tested robustness and simplicity of Riemann’s theory lends itself perfectly to the heuristic, pedagogical and mnemonic purposes of this paper. Along with the aforementioned elements, I opine that it provides a valid and, above all, practical explanation of certain progressions observed in many of Wheeler’s compositions.

How Wheeler Disguises Chord Functions: The Dual Use Of A Priori Harmonic Substitutions

On the linear, syntactic plane (ie: where the bass line diverges from its expected, more common course), Wheeler uses a priori harmonic substitutions that come disguise the functional substrate of the progression. The chief effect achieved by this strategy is that of a cadence-less flow of modulating harmonies with oblique, non-formulaic bass lines. The following are examples of such chord substitutions:

1) Dmin7/G (D) to Ebmaj7 (T) instead of the more common G7 (D) to Cmaj7 (T) and G7(alt) (D) to Cmin6 (T) progressions. Masking factor(s) = suspended D

2) G7(alt) (D) to Ebmaj7 (T) instead of the more common G7(alt) (D) to Cmin6 (T) progression. Masking factor(s) = deceptive cadence

3) F#min7/B (D) to Cmaj7 (T) instead of the more common B7(alt) (D) to Emin6 (T) progression. Masking factor(s) = suspended D + deceptive cadence

4) F#min7b5 (S) to B7(alt) (D) to Cmaj7 (T) instead of the more common F#min7b5 (S) to B7(alt) (D) to Emin6 (T) progression. Masking factor(s) = deceptive cadence

5) Gdim7 (D) to Abmin7 (T) instead of the more common Eb7(b9) (D) to Abmin7 (T) progression. Masking factor(s) = chord substitution via inversion

6) Bmaj7(#5)/G (D) to Abmin7 (T) instead of the more common Eb7(b13) (D) to Abmin7 (T) progression. Masking factor(s) = chord substitution via inversion

7) Db7(alt) (D) to Cmaj7 (T) instead of the more common G7 (D) to Cmaj7 (T) progression. Masking factor(s) = chord substitution (ie: tritone sub.)

On the vertical, paradigmatic axis (ie: where the chord’s bass note remains the same but the chord type on top of it is different from the one(s) one would normally expect), he will substitute “vanilla”-sounding sonorities for more striking, colorful ones. Used to challenge soloists (for most players, it is more challenging to improvise over a succession of modal chords than it is on more common, diatonic changes), the chief effect achieved by this strategy is that of ambiguity in the overall sound. The following are a few examples of such chord substitutions (see Table 1 for more examples observed in Wheeler’s music):

1) Gmin7/C (T) instead of the more common Cmaj7 (T) Masking factor(s) = suspended Tonic

2) Dbmaj7(#11)/C (T) instead of the more common Cmin7 (T) Masking factor(s) = suspended Tonic with striking colors

3) Cmin13 (T) instead of the more common Cmin6 (T) Masking factor(s) =extensions on the Tonic (b7, 9, with the 6 th )

4) Bmaj7(#5)/G (D) instead of the more common G7(b9, b13) (D) Masking factor(s) = chord nomenclature

5) Abmaj7(#11) )/G (D) instead of the more common G7(b9, b13) (D) Masking factor(s) = suspended Dominant

6) Amin7b5/D (S) instead of the more common Dmin7 (S) Masking factor(s) = suspended Subdominant + presence of the dissonant b2 (Eb)

7) Gmaj7/D (S) instead of the more common Dmin7 (S) or D7 (as a secondary dominant) Masking factor(s) = suspended Subdominant (or secondary dominant)

As the chord-scale relationships of these harmonies show, Wheeler seems to favor color over function, and that, to achieve the ambiguous, acadencial, and non-formulaic qualities mentioned above. Similarly to his linear, syntactical use of a priori substitutes, this characteristic trait of his harmonic language also disguises the chords’ functional substrate. That said, as previously noted, the bass note - which is perceived by the human ear as the the root of the chord - remains the same as it would in less intricate harmonic paradigms. But because of their intrinsic nature, one must point out that Tonic chords tend to lose more of their function in this paradigm. In clear, an Abmaj7(#11)/G is a weak Dominant, and a Dbmaj7(#11)/C is an even weaker Tonic. Lastly, one also need to point out that their duration and place in the piece’s form affect their perception as Tonics. In other words, they are more likely to be perceived as Tonics if they are stressed strategically.

Preferred Bass Movements

Besides the sheer predominance of altered chords and inversions, one of the most common first observations made by beboppers of Wheeler’s harmonic language is its non-reliance on the Circle Of Fifths to instill forward motion. Indeed, where one would normally see series of modulating II-Vs and I-VI-II-Vs one is confronted to lydian sonorities that go to altered dominant seventh chords in different keys, and other equally odd maneuvers. After a few minutes of head scratching, most beboppers arrive at what I call the klangfarben theory 4 : chords are chosen for their color rather than for their role. Though this conclusion may very well be phenomenologically correct, I observed that the nomenclature of the chords at times camouflages the underlying organizational principles of their assembly. For example, if one writes: Bmaj7(#11), Emin9/A, Gmaj7(#11)/F#, Fmin9/Bb, EbMaj7(6)/Bb, instead of Bmaj7, D7, Gmaj7, Bb13, Ebmaj7, some may not recognize John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Though the use of inversions, extensions and non-formulaic bass line make the sequence sound different, the 3-Tonic System at the heart of the tune’s conception remains in the reharmonized version.

Of course, most chord progressions found in Tables 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 stray far from the realm of tonal harmony, and there are no way to theorize them other than according their real nature (ie: modal changes.) That said, a few sequences - those in italics marked of an arrow - can be viewed as progressions that have emigrated from the tonal paradigm into the Wheelerian one. Consequently, their understanding and memorization by improvisers can perhaps be more easily carried out knowing that they can be viewed as originating from the tonal system (which is, after all, their base system of reference.) Coupled with a

working knowledge of the 3- and 4-Tonic Systems, and of the taxonomies found in the tables concluding this paper, their mastery of Wheeler’s harmony should thus be greatly improved.

Recurrent, Functional Harmony-Rooted Progressions (Not Based on Preferred Bass Movements)

Besides the few harmonic sequences observed in the Preferred Bass Movements that can be analyzed with Riemann’s theory (ie: those in italics), other recurrent progressions may be viewed as being rooted in the tonal paradigm. They are found in Tables 7, 8, 9 and 10, which summarize Wheeler’s favorite two- and three-chords sequences. They are: the V - I, IV - V - I, II - V of III - I, bII - V - I progressions and their variations.

Again, one reiterates that Wheeler uses a rather empiric, klangfarben-reminiscent method of chord types selection. Yet these sonorities will populate the same syntactic spots shared by their not-so-distant, more common-sounding relatives. Please refer to Table 1 for such Wheelerisms.

Coda

My objective in conducting this research and writing this humble paper was three-fold:

1)

Identify the harmonic sequences that Wheeler uses recurrently ie: those that make

2)

his harmonic language idiosyncratic and original; Organize them in a few, simple taxonomies so as to facilitate their understanding,

3)

learning, and memorization; Argue that some theories (ie: Riemann’s Functional Harmony) and notions borrowed from the tonal paradigm (Tonicization, Deceptive Cadences, Direct Modulations, etc), when applied to certain Wheelerisms, help meet the second objective mentioned above.

Because a thorough knowledge of modal jazz harmony is required if one wants to fully grasp Wheeler’s language, the aim of this paper was never to argue against the modality of his music. But I find that, augmenting its analysis with selected theoretical notions commonly used in tonal contexts - so as to facilitate their understanding, learning, and memorization -, is not only a natural process, but one that should prove immensely helpful. Understanding Wheeler’s harmony can be a somewhat disconcerting experience to some musicians. But knowing they can rely on certain, selected concepts in their base system of reference - and be open and willing to slightly adapt their view of a few of these notions to render them analog to Wheeler’s language - eases the transition into Wheeler’s music. Consequently, I suggest to all those struggling with Wheeler’s singular harmonic style that they study the fourteen tables below.

Note: Progressions in italics are those which may be analyzed with Riemann’s Functional Harmony Theory.

Table 1. Wheeler’s Favorite Chord Colors for the Basic Chord Functions

Major Tonics (in C) Cmaj7(#11) Gmin7/C or C7sus4 Dbmaj7(#11)/C Minor Tonics (in C) Cmin(add9) Cmin7
Major Tonics (in C)
Cmaj7(#11)
Gmin7/C or C7sus4
Dbmaj7(#11)/C
Minor Tonics (in C)
Cmin(add9)
Cmin7
Cmin(b6,9)
Gmin7/C or C7sus4
Cmin13
Dbmaj7(#11)/C
Dominants (in C)
a) Suspendeds
Cmaj7/G
Dmin7b5/G or Abmaj7(#11)/G
G7sus4
Dmin7/G or Fmaj7/G
b) Altereds
G7(alt)
Db/G
Bmaj7(#5)/G
G/Ab
c) Tritone Substitutions
Dbmaj7(#11)
Db7(alt)
Abmin7b5/Db
Abmin7/Db
Cbmaj7/Db
Cbmin/Db
Subdominants (in C)
a) Minor Sevenths, Suspendeds and Altereds
Dmin7b5
Dmin7
Amin7/D
Amin7b5/D
Gmaj7/D
D7(alt) -> as a V of V
b) Tritone Substitutions
Abmaj7(#11)
Abmin7
Dbmaj7/Ab -> minor mode subdominant
Leittonwechselklang
Ebmin7/Ab
Abmin7b5

Table 2. Preferred Bass Movements: Tritones (as part of a 4-Tonic System, or not)

Chord #1

Chord #2

Gmaj7

Dbmin7

Gmaj7

Db7(alt)

Gmaj7

Dbmin7b5

Gmaj7

Dbmin7(b6)

Gmaj7

Dbmaj7

Gmin7

Dbmin7

Gmin7

Abmin7/Db

Gmin7

Db7(alt)

Gmin7

Dmaj7(#11)/C#

Gmin7

C#dim7

Gmin7

Dbmaj7

Dmin7/G

Abmin7/Db

Dmin7/G

Dbmaj7(#11)

Abmaj7(#11)/G

Dbmaj7

Table 3. Preferred Bass Movements: Perfect Fourths

Chord #1

Chord #2

Gmaj7

Cmaj7

Gmin7

Cmin7

Abmaj7(#11)/G

G/C

Gmin7

Db/C

Gmin7(b6,9)

B/C

Table 4. Preferred Bass Movements: Major Thirds (as part of a 3-Tonic System, or not)

Root Movement

Chord #1

Chord #2

Ascending

Gmaj7

Bmin7

 

Gmin7

Bmaj7(#5)

 

Gmaj7

Bmaj7

   

Bmin7

F#/G

->V7(b9)(inv) - I

 

Gmin7

F#min7/B

Descending

Gmin7

Ebmaj7

 

Gmin7

Ebmin7

   

Ebmaj7

Dmin7/G

->deceptive cad.

   

Ebmaj7

G7(alt)

->deceptive cad.

Table 5. Preferred Bass Movements: Minor Thirds (as part of a 4-Tonic System, or not)

Root Movement

Chord #1

Chord #2

Ascending

Gmin7

Bbmin7

 

Gmaj7

Bbmaj7

 

Dmin7/G

Fmin7/Bb

 

Cmin7/G

Ebmin7/Bb

Descending

Gmin7

Bmin7/E

Table 6. Preferred Bass Movements: Minor Seconds

Root Movement

Chord #1

Chord #2

Ascending

Gmin7

Ebmin7/Ab

 

Dmin7/G

Abmin7

 

Dmin7/G

Abmaj7

-> deceptive cad.

 

G7(alt)

Abmin7

 

G7(alt)

Abmaj7

-> deceptive cad.

   

Abmin7

Gdim7

-> V7(b9)(inv) - I

   

Abmin7

Bmaj7(#5)/G

-> V7(b13)(inv) - I

 

Dmin7/G

Abmaj7(#11)

 

Ab/G

Abmaj7(#11)

-> deceptive cad.

 

Gmin7

Abmaj7(#11)

Descending

Gmin7

F#maj7

 

Gmaj7

C#min7/F#

 

Dmin7/G

F#7(alt)

 

G7(alt)

F#maj7

 

Gmaj7

F#min7

 

Gmin7

F#7(alt)

 

Gbmaj7(#11)

F7(alt)

 

Ab/G

E/F#

Table 7. The Dominant - Tonic Progression (Major and Minor) And Its Variations

G7(alt) Cmaj7 G7(alt) Cmin7 *Abmaj7(#11)/G Cmaj7 *Abmaj7(#11)/G Cmin7 *Dmin7/G Gmin7/C *Dmin7/G Cmaj7 *Dmin7/G
G7(alt)
Cmaj7
G7(alt)
Cmin7
*Abmaj7(#11)/G
Cmaj7
*Abmaj7(#11)/G
Cmin7
*Dmin7/G
Gmin7/C
*Dmin7/G
Cmaj7
*Dmin7/G
Cmin7
*Dmin7/G
Csus4
*Dmin7b5
Cmaj7
*Dmin7b5
Cmin7
**Bdim7(addG)
Cmin7(b13)
Note that most chords in the first column can go to any of the following:
Cmin7
Cmaj7
Abmaj7
Abmin7
F#maj7
F#min7

Note: The progressions marked with * are progressions in which a 4 th replaces the major 3 rd in the Dominant chord. And the one marked with ** is a progression using an inverted version of the Dominant chord.

Table 8. The Subdominant - Dominant - Tonic Progression And Its Variations

Subdominant

Dominant

Tonic

Dmin7b5

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Dmin7b5

G7(alt)

Cmaj7

Dmin7b5

G7(alt)

Cdim7(maj7)

D7(alt)

G7(alt)

Cmaj7

D7(alt)

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Dmin7

Db7(alt)

Cmaj7

Abmin7

Dbmaj7

Cmaj7

Amin7/D

Db7(alt)

Cmaj7

Abmaj7

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Abmin7

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Abmin7

G7(alt)

Cmaj7

Dbmaj7/Ab

G7sus or Dmin7/G

Cmin7

Dbmaj7/Ab

G7sus or Dmin7/G

Cmaj7

Fmin7

Bdim7

Cmin7

Fmin7/Bb

Bdim7

Cmin7

Cmin7/F

Dbmaj7(#11)

Gmin7/C

Fmin7

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Fmin7/G

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Dmin7b5/G

G7(alt)

Cmaj7

Dmin7b5/G

G7(alt)

Cmaj7(#11)

Table 9. The II - V of III - I Cadence

Subdominant

Dominant

Tonic

Dmin7b5/G

F#min7/B

Cmaj7

F#min7b5

B7(alt)

Cmaj7

Table 10. bII - V - I Cadence

Subdominant

Dominant

Tonic

Dbmaj7(minor mode

   

Subdominant

Leittonwechselklang)

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Dbmin7

G7(alt)

Cmin7

Table 11. Favourite Formal Strategies

- The bi-chordal introduction - Rubato introduction - 3-Tonic System as a modulating device - Literal transposition of whole sections - Canonic countermelody

Table 12. Example: “W.W.”

 

Original

Ebmin7/Ab

Emaj7(#11)

 

G7(alt)

Ebmaj7

 

Abmaj7

Cmaj7

Fmaj7

Emi11

 
   

(lyd.)

 

Funct. Anal.

 

D

 

T

 

D

 

T

 

S

 

T

D

T

Func.

 

G#7sus4

C#min13

 

G7(alt)

 

Cmin7

 

Fmin7

Cmaj7

B7sus

Emin7

Chords

       

(b9,b5)

Key Centers

 

Db

 

B

 

Cmin

 

Cmin

 

Cmin

 

C

Emin

Emin

 

Table 13. Example: First Fourteeen Bars Of “Heyoke Part #1”

 

Original

Original

Fmaj7

Bmin9

C#7(alt)

F#min11

Bbmin7

Amaj7(#11)

Abmaj7

Bmaj7(#11)

Dmaj7(#11)

Gmaj7(#11)

Funct.

Functional

4Tonic

S

D

T

S

D

T

4Tonic

4Tonic

Anal.

Analysis

+4Tonic

 

Func.

Functional

Fmaj7

G#min7b5

C#7(alt)

F#min7

Bbmin7

Eb7sus(b5,b9)

Abmaj7

Bmaj7(#11)

Dmaj7(#11)

Chords

Chords

 

Key

Key

C

F#min

F#min

F#min

 

Ab

E

Eb

F#

A

D

Centers

Centers

   
 

Table 14. Example: First Few Bars Of “Sea Lady”

 
 

Original

Cmaj7(#11)

C7(alt)

C#min9/F#

Bmaj7(#11)

F7(alt)

Emaj7(#11)

Bbmin(b13)

Ebmaj7(#11)

 

Funct.

 

T

 

D

 

D

 

T

D

 

T

 

T

 

T

Anal.

             

Func.

 

Cmaj7

F#7(alt)

F#9sus4

   

Bmaj7

B7

 

Emaj7

Bbmin7

 

Ebmaj7

Chords

         

Key

 

G

Fmin

 

B

 

F#

Bbmin

 

B

Bbmin

 

Bb

Centers

         

Notes

1- Eyles, John. 2003. ‘‘Kenny Wheeler, Ennio Morricone and Wayne Shorter’’ All About Jazz. 2- Fordham, John. 2005. ‘‘The Windmill Tilter Dreams On’’ http://www.jazzservices.org.uk/index.php/british-jazz-on-

youtube/item/390-kenny_wheeler_interview

3- Randel, Don Michael. 1986. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press:

Cambridge, MA. 4- Schoenberg, Arnold. 1911. Harmoniehlere. Verlagseigentum der Universal-Edition: Leipzig and Vienna.

A music publishing expert and former professional musician, Martin Gladu also freelances as a translator, writer, and researcher.

Copyright © 2012 by Martin Gladu All rights reserved

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