I wrote about Drop 2 last year here and I’ve had some feedback (a few people really loved the picture of the Golden Retriever with four tennis balls in her mouth – so here she is for a well-deserved encore).
In particular, I’ve been asked variations on the following question: “All very well, mate, and it works well over static I chords and turnarounds, but what do you do when there are other sorts of chords involved?”
Well, I’ll freely admit that I’m not the hottest drop-twoer on the planet. I regard it as an occasional tool. Keep meaning to get round to putting more work into it… and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Mostly, my approach to other chord types and situations when using this approach is to sort of bend and twist either the major or minor 6th versions to fit as I go along. Which is a bit haphazard, to be honest. But you can be a bit more scientific and there are specific ways of tackling different chord types in drop two by applying 6th structures on different roots.
Warning: this will get technical. Don your safety goggles now and make sure you have at least seven pens and a slide rule in the top pocket of your white coat. Prepare also to learn how to play some beautiful sounds, but not to make any money or have much sex as a result.
WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW
If you’re playing over a passage that’s basically “in C major” (even with turnarounds), you play the drop two set that combines C6 and G7b9 chords – you are harmonising the C major bebop scale (C D E F G G# A B).
If your passage is “in C minor”, you play the set that combines Cm6 and G7b9 chords – same as above, just with the flat 3rd of the key.
This is what we already know and it can take us a very long way indeed. At least in functional harmony, every tune is, at any given point, in a certain key. Even such devices as tritone and Coltrane substitutions are temporary modulations. As the famous Eccles from the Goon Show used to say, when asked “What are you doing here?”, “Everybody got to be somewhere.” With Drop 2, you’re effectively just playing the key centres and using a seesawing of I and V7b9 chords over them.
The question arises – how much of this stuff should you play? Well, if you’re playing solo, feel free to go nuts. During a combo piano solo you can often get pretty wild too – remember that even in a band context, when the piano solo comes you’re playing a mini trio gig.
As for comping… My experience has been that it’s best to restrict the hardcore drop twoing to the occasional fill when the soloist rests (which is essentially a tiny moment of trio situation again). You can also occasionally use drop two under (or with) a soloist, but take care not to bury their ideas in dense lush sound. This stuff can be far too rich for comping and what’s worse it can restrict the soloist.
In particular, when comping you can use drop two voicings as approaches to chords – just slide up or down from the 7b9 voicing into the target. But take great care, because the soloist is often reharmonising the changes as they go, and they might prefer “just the facts ma’am”. Some soloists dig a really active, even reactive backing, others will just feel like punching your lights out. If in doubt, play less, and always leave them space – it is their time to shine. (And you can’t afford reconstructive surgery on a musician’s wages.)
NOW ONWARDS INTO THE TOP SECRET RESEARCH FACILITY
Cm7 is often played as if it were a minor tonic (it’s just slightly bluesier). But whether you’re thinking that way or nimbly chucking in some drop-twoery over a II chord in a II-V-I, you just play the set that combines Eb6 and Bb7b9. You’re harmonising the Eb bebop scale (Eb F G Ab Bb B C D). Strictly speaking this scale is Aeolian or classical minor, but the flat 6th is played as a passing tone.
If you specifically want a CΔ#4 (Lydian) sound play the set combining Am6 and E7b9.
C7 is sometimes played as if it were a major tonic (it’s just much bluesier). Whether you’re doing that or being athletic on the V in a II-V-I, you can play the set that combines Gm6 and D7b9. The Gm bebop scale (G A Bb C D D# E F). This can be slightly unsatisfactory, since the “on” voicings in that set spell out a C9 without the root – although the root is in the “off” voicings. (But note also that the blue 3rd is in there.)
What about minor II-Vs? Panic not. Over a CØ chord (eg from a minor II-V-I in Bb), play the set that combines Ebm6 and Bb7b9. The Ebm bebop scale (Eb F Gb Ab Bb B C D). This set, played over a C half-diminished chord gives you the common modern alteration of a #2nd.
Over a C7alt chord (eg from a minor II-V-I in F), play the set that combines Dbm6 and Ab7b9. The Dbm bebop scale (Db Eb Fb Gb Ab A Bb C). Again, the “on” voicings don’t contain the root.
C7b9 is just about as diminished as diminished can be. I personally tend to treat 7b9 and diminished chords as two sides of the same coin. There isn’t really a pure drop two solution to either. Maybe I’m just being lazy, but I prefer to think in terms of upper structurey type things in these situations – they can blend very nicely with drop two. If you wish, you can try interlacing the two diminished chords that make up the scale – in this case Co and C#o. To my ear this has a rather “bionic” superactive sound, which may be too much. But if it floats your boat, go for it.
I honestly don’t think I know anyone who is totally hands-on conversant with drop two in all keys and situations – and, believe me, I know some hardcore woodshed nutters. In my experience, the best way into this sound is to work slowly and methodically on arrangements of individual tunes and gradually acquire pet situations and solutions over time. Of course, this stuff is an absolute killer on fat horn arrangements… Why not write some?
In most situations a pianist just doesn’t have the time to accurately apply drop two manoeuvres to each and every chord as it passes – and even if you’re clever enough to do it, it’s often not appropriate. You’d just wind up burying the tune in thick harmonic washes (and nobody likes a smartarse).
But a certain amount of this thinking, judiciously applied, can definitely broaden the scope of your playing, and take you away from your instinctive claw shapes in interesting and fertile new directions.
That concludes our tour of the research facility. You can now remove your safety goggles, pens and slide rule and go back to being sexy again.