Super Locrian Meets the Dastardly Half Diminishedo

Many ways to skin a cat: Is it a half diminished? Is it a dominant? Well, yes, really. (Sonia Belousova in character and me mangling comic book analogies for a cheap headline.)

Many ways to skin a cat: Is it a half diminished? Is it a dominant? No, it’s… Well, yes, it’s both really. (Sonia Belousova in character and me mangling comic book analogies for a cheap headline.)

What do you play on a minor II in, say, C minor? D half-diminished, some kind of Ab7 or some kind of D7? Do you know the difference? Or, perhaps more importantly, do you know the similarity?

This week I’ll look at some ideas from Bill Evans (jazz’s very own Clark Kent, and okay I’ll give up on the superhero analogy now) playing What Is This Thing (from his early album, Portrait in Jazz). That’s not him in the picture. And non-pianists, stay with me – this is for you too.

This is an instructive performance for many reasons. Bill makes lots of use of upper structures, both as voicings and as arpeggios when soloing. These shapes are often regarded as belonging to a later style. He also uses a lot of fourth voicings (ditto), as opposed to the classic rootless voicings that are generally taught as “the Bill sound”. Actually, the fourth voicings are really just thinned down versions of the full rootless voicings, but if you’re used to thinking “rootless=Bill; fourths=Tyner/Chick”, think again.

What is also interesting is how he chooses to treat his half-diminished chords.

The chords for the A section are:

Gø C7b9  Fm
Dø G7#9  C
(Notice the very Cole Porterish gesture of using a minor II V going to a major I.)

Now a lot of people have problems over half-diminished chords – in fact, even very fluent players will often stick closer to the “just the facts, ma’am” tones than they would on other chord types. The chord tones for Gø are G Bb Db F. As I’ve said before here, the two scales most often chosen over this chord are:

7th (Locrian) mode of Ab major
G Ab Bb C Db Eb F
6th mode of Bb melodic minor
G A Bb C Db Eb F

But you can always substitute a dominant chord anywhere. So we can also play:

G7b9 (half-step whole-step diminished scale)
G Ab A# B C# D E F
G7 altered scale (7th mode of Ab melodic minor)
G Ab A# B C# Eb F

In either of these options, we’re regarding the Bb/A# as a #9, not a b3rd and the Db/C# as #11th, not a b5th.

Notice how these G dominant scales also contain the chord tones for Gø. The second option is one Bill uses a lot. As I’ve said, it’s a substitition – you aren’t really playing a half-dim anymore. (Incidentally, are you inclined to think of playing a dominant over every chord as a bluesy thing? Well, Evans does it all the time, and he’s one of the least overtly bluesy players.)

But it’s a substitution that works seamlessly because all the strong chord tones are in the substitute scale. Now I’m not saying you should always do this, and Bill doesn’t, but it’s a very useful idea to expand your options on half-diminished chords.


Why should it make a fool of me? Well, another name for the altered scale is the Super Locrian, and the reason for the name becomes clear when we lay the two scales out for comparison:

G Ab Bb C Db Eb F
Super Locrian
G Ab A# B C# Eb F

Look past the different spellings and you realise that there’s only one note different. In fact, the different spellings are a clue to what’s going on. In a sense, the most altered minor chord takes just one alteration too many and cracks – it crosses the international dateline and becomes the most altered dominant major chord. You could also think of it as a Locrian scale adjusted to include a major 3rd – which instantly recasts the previous minor 3rd as the #9th. There’s no getting away from this – a #9 may be #9 from a theory point of view, but it’s also the same note as a minor 3rd.

For the second cadence, Bill often uses a D7alt chord in the LH and plays an F minor triad in the RH. Think about that. Is he playing Upper Structure bIIIm, is he doing altered dom in the LH and half-dim in the RH or is he soloing on #9 #11 b7? The answer is… yes.

As I said, Bill doesn’t always use these alteration and nor should you. For one thing, the perfect 4th is a fantastic tone to use on half-dims and you lose that by making this substitution. Of course, scales are a tool, not a straitjacket…


Evans played upper structures, fourths, bluesy stuff and Coltrane changes… Surprised?

Why haven’t I given examples from a transcription of this solo? Because I didn’t do it myself, I bought it (years ago, in fact). Bad Jason, naughty Jason. You should never buy transcription books, should you? They’re useless aren’t they? You should do it yourself and learn by the process? Yup.

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes
(Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

Sue me. Send me the Bill.
(Jason Lyon, Blog of Myself)

This transcription is one of eight in Bob Hinz’s great book called The Artistry of Bill Evans Vol 2. The book also contains a fabulous full two-handed transcription of Bill’s sublime solo rendition of Here’s That Rainy Day (from the album Alone). In which, would you believe, he modulated between choruses by major 3rds – B Eb and G… Coltrane stuff, folks, albeit between rather than within choruses. And to loop back to the start of the post, we again find something that you’re not generally conditioned to associate with Evans…

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes, b) Harmony & Comping, i) Reviews

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