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JAZZ THEORY (BeBop Drills)

The Use of Tensions 1

Before BeBop most jazz musicians built their solos around the basic chord tones of the underlying progression. One musician who changed that was Charlie Parker. In Ross Russell's Bird Lives [p. 105], the story of a jam on Ray Noble's Cherokee points out his personal discovery of the addition to jazz harmonic / melodic material called tensions. "Charlie had been over the changes countless times, and the tune was beginning to sound stale. ... Then an idea struck him: if he played the top notes of the chords instead of the middle or lower notes, he would have a new line. ... The notes sounded strange, but it worked. He was using the upper intervals, ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, skimming along the very tops of the chords."

Our job in BeBop is to understand and use these upper intervals or tensions as part of our basic tool kit. To do this we first must understand the concept of extensions, and what makes an extension into a tension. Seventh chords are built in scale thirds or 'skips', and use the odd numbered degrees of the scale 1 - 3 - 5 - 7. If we continue to move up the scale in thirds and cross the octave, we find ourselves at degrees 9 - 11 - 13, and finally 15, which sounds two octaves higher that our original 1, the root of the chord. These three tones [9,11,13] are the three scale extensions most likely to be used as tensions.

A tension is defined in one of two ways: natural tensions 9 - 11 - 13, and altered tensions b9 - #9 - #11 - b13. When an extension of the major scale 'fits' the function of the chord within the progression, it is considered a natural tension. If the extension does not fit in its' natural state, it may be omitted, or altered to fit the particular situation. Since we must know the concept of natural tensions and extensions before we can alter them, the drill is to play all major scales in thirds.

To accomplish this, begin at the lowest possible point of the scale on your instrument, and ascend by thirds, as in C, E, G, B, D, F, A, C etc., until reaching the highest point possible, then descend the same way, as in C, A, F, D, B, G, E, C. Since we skip every other note by doing this, we also begin at the second lowest possible scale tone, the one in between the first two tones you played the first time. Play each major scale this way, approaching the scales in the order of the cycle of fifths [C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, F#, B, E, A, D, G]. String players should do this exercise one string at a time, piano players use two hands in octaves.

If you have solo transcriptions or BeBop melodies notated, look for ascending or descending lines in thirds. Play them and listen to the effect. As your ears adjust to the sound, listen for it on your jazz albums. Next, we will begin to apply tensions to the major seventh chord. [top]
- Frank Singer 2002

I originally learned these concepts from Charlie Banacos, private instructor.



The Language of BeBop
The Use of Tensions 1
The Use of Tensions 2 
The Use of Tensions 3 
The Jazz Sub-Dominant Chord - II-7 
The Jazz Dominant Chord - V7  
The II-7 V7 Progression - II V series  
The Key of the Moment  
"Watch out for those chromatics!"    
Ear Training  


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