Oftentimes, as a single note improviser, it is difficult to recognize harmonic tensions by ear. For example, when playing just an A natural, it sometimes challenging to hear that note as a 13th on a major #5 chord or as a sharp nine on a dominant 7th chord. This lack of harmonic context is often something that drives single note players to the piano (which is a good thing). Guitar players, piano players and other polyphonic instrumentalist can play a note along with a chord voicing giving that note clear harmonic context.
Over the years I’ve used a simple concept that can really aid a single note player in creating a harmonic context without a piano or chordal instrument which is often not available. By first playing the “shell” (root, 3rd and 7th of a chord) and than playing a specific tension, group of tensions or entire melodic phrase, it’s a bit easier to hear the harmonic context for the musical content we’re working on.
In this lesson we look at one shell voicing (1, 3, 7 of a dominant 7th chord) and 2 upper-structure tensions (the 13th and b13th).
To expand upon this concept, simply play any shell voicing (major, minor, dominant, diminished etc.) followed by a tension, group of tensions or entire melody. This will help you hear the harmonic context to whatever note, group of notes or phrase you are working on. This can also lead to some interesting intervallic melodies that have clear harmonic implications.
Although I’m no Art Tatum, I’ve found that, over time, my ear has improved at identifying tensions and becoming a bit more aware of the polyphonic, harmonically rich world of piano and guitar players.