"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #22: Block Chords: What are they? How to use them?

While recording “You’re My Everything” during a recording session on October 26, 1956, Miles Davis whistled during the song’s intro to stop the recording and said to Red Garland, his pianist, “Play some block chords Red… Alright Rudy?… Block chords Red”.

This instruction was left in the mix and can be heard on the commercially released recording. What did Miles mean when he said that? What did Miles want from his pianist?  The song’s intro starts at the video’s 19th second time code marker and as you’re listening, pay special attention to the difference in Red Garland’s playing before and after Miles’ instruction.

http://www.plosin.com/MilesAhead/Sessions.aspx?s=561026

“Block chords” is a harmonic device that calls for all harmony being played, during the spans-of-time that block chords are engaged, to be delivered within certain close-position voicings and rhythmic parameters.  When block chords are applied to melody and/or single-note improvisation lines, a more impactful, “phatter”, richer sound results! I’ve seen Phineas Newborn draw actual gasps-of-excitement from audiences with his highly skilled block chord use!

There are several types or variations of block chords but the one on which I’m going to focus in this workshop I’ve named “book ends”.  Book ends call for 5-note voicings with a numerical schematic that spells voices 1 through 5 the from top to bottom with the melody or lead always being note 1 or the top-most note. Note 5 always doubles note 1, one octave lower. Notes 2, 3, and 4 are harmony notes which must be placed in between or within the one-octave span of notes 1 and 5 (the “book ends”) at all times.

Since this is a tall order, I highly advise you to do yourself a favor before moving on to blocking melodies and improv lines. Do the prep work of  making sure that you can play all Major7, Dominant7, Minor7, Minor7b5 and Diminished7 chords in all four of their positions in the 5-note block chord style! It’ll make what follows much easier!!!

As I always say, don’t hesitate to contact me if you need some assistance. I’ll be glad to hear from you and glad to help. Let’s Skype!

Where did block chords come from? Who invented them?  

I recall having read somewhere in the past that pianist/organist Milt Buckner was given credit for starting or inventing block chords!

I’m not going to co-sign such an absolute statement but I will go along with acknowledging the fact that Milt Buckner is one of the first musicians to be widely noticed and recognized for bringing this style of playing to the “forefront”.  George Shearing credited Milt Buckner and the big band sounds of Glenn Miller as his two major influencers along the lines of his developing the block chord “George Shearing sound”.

http://www.jazzwax.com/2009/05/milt-buckner-block-chords-parade.html

Erroll Garner also credited the sounds of big bands as his main influence in the development of his signature style which uses block chords. There are many other musicians who cite Milt Buckner as a main influencing source along these lines but as to whether or not Milt Buckner actually invented block chords, I choose to remain a non signatory.

John Lennon once said that if you had to rename rock and roll, you’d have to call it “Chuck Berry!” However, in Chuck Berry’s autobiography, Chuck thanked J.L. for the statement but spoke up right away saying that the whole “Chuck Berry” concept and sound was not actually his! It came directly from his being influenced by his local peers, the great boogie-woogie players, and people like the great Nat “King” Cole!

I like to think that if Milt Buckner were around today, he might thank all of his fans and “influencees” before giving the same kind of cautionary statement the C.B. gave J.L.

And so the story goes… Because of the influence factor, it’s usually inaccurate at best to try to trace and pinpoint something like a trend or a style in music down to one person. What is more important to me is finding out how to do it and how to use it in my playing.

With that said, let me draw your attention to the 7/22/13 update release of “Block Chording Short Scales” in my store.  It is a rudimentary block chord drill system that focuses on block chording 3-, 4-, and 5-note scales of the major and minor varieties and it has MIDI accompaniments to help your practice move right along. If you do the work, this updated package can be very helpful to you in getting block chords “together”.  Contact me if you need assistance.

See you next post.

Art

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