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I know that the Mark Levine Jazz Theory and Jazz Piano books were widely used theory books in jazz instruction and almost considered the standard. However, they are both over a quarter century old now. Have there been widespread evolutions in jazz theory since these books have been published? If so, what are some of them? How has playing changed from a theory perspective since the mid 90s?

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    I have a hunch that the answer highly depends on jazz sub-genre, and that for most sub-genres, this theory hasn't changed.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 13, 2021 at 3:18
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    This is a great question, and would be a great book topic. There's a ton here. The work of musicians like Mehldau, Rosenwinkle, Redman, Turner, and Glasper is now very well-established (and mimicked). They introduced new techniques, structures, and approaches that are definitely not described in those books and warrant the addition of some new theoretical descriptions. There's also some less pervasive but equally cutting edge stuff that's also very incredible. But I'm not sure either of these have been formalized in new theory, which has kind of always been the challenge with jazz education.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 13, 2021 at 3:49
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    I asked about one specific technique from Mehldau's trio in this question. There are tons that could be discussed on every topic (rhythm, harmony, melody). Obviously there are still people out there trying to emulate Coltrane or Parker, as @Dekkadeci alludes to, but it seems you're not asking about that so much as the newer trends that have emerged in more contemporary jazz. They definitely exist (many at the highly advanced level), and it makes me wonder if any books have been written about this.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 13, 2021 at 3:49
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    I disagree about closing this Q. IMO it's phrased in a way to ask for a high-level overview, and it invites high-quality answers that fit within the guidelines of the site. I think it's an extremely high-quality question. The expertise required may make it difficult to get good answers, but I do still think concise, high-quality answers that fit within the site guidelines are still very possible for this Q.
    – jdjazz
    Dec 13, 2021 at 13:50
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    IMO this is a great example of what could have been a request-for-resources question (and gotten closed), and instead asked for knowledge. This is what "Can someone point me to a more up-to-date jazz book" wants to be when it grows up. I hope someone with more jazz knowledge than I has a good answer—but I fear that the answer is "Well, the main developments in the past 3 decades have been to blur categories and boundaries, more than to rewrite the theory books..." Dec 13, 2021 at 14:59

2 Answers 2

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Although this change isn't necessarily "widespread" yet, one change we are starting to see is a shift from "vertical" thinking to more "horizontal" thinking.

For years, jazz pedagogy was very much focused on the chords (hence "vertical") as determinants for what scales to use when improvising. This emphasis on chords sometimes obfuscated the small changes in voice leading between two harmonies. As a really simple example, consider the chords Cm and A♭/C. Written this way, it's easy to miss that the only difference between these two chords is a G moving to an A♭.

As a response to this vertical focus, some recent authors—most notably Dariusz Terefenko—have pursued jazz theory from a voice-leading (almost Schenkerian) viewpoint that emphasizes prolongational structures in jazz as opposed to the chord-by-chord approach.

But as I said, this new view isn't exactly widespread yet, so it's unclear if this is the new path for jazz or not. My sense is that jazz is still very vertically minded.

Terefenko also has discussions of post-tonal and atonal jazz, something which I'd never seen before, so this may also be an example of a new approach.

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  • Cool. What distinguishes Terefenko's approach from the horizontal, playing "across" the chord changes of bebop or, more significantly, modal jazz — Coltrane specifically? Is it that he's addressing in formal theoretic terms what those and other musicians were doing in practice?
    – Aaron
    Dec 30, 2021 at 17:04
  • There have always been players who though 'horizontally', that is melodically. Chet Baker was a very good example.
    – PiedPiper
    Dec 30, 2021 at 18:07
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    Yes, Terefenko is addressing it theoretically while also introducing the ideas pedagogically (something that is typically missed in the overtly chord-based approaches).
    – Richard
    Dec 31, 2021 at 2:59
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Having thought about this question for a while, I would actually say that much of the jazz theory evolution in the past several decades has been more in rhythm than in harmony. Examples of this would be jazz musicians being able to play everything from swing, to funk, to Afro-Caribbean, to J Dilla rhythms and various combinations of those and other styles.

For that I'll reference the sections in the recent book Dilla Time about J Dilla's influence on jazz rhythm as well as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah talking in this interview about the importance of rhythm.

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