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The Barry Harris diminished 6th voicings are popular voicings in Jazz, often related to Bill Evans when using drop 2 's.

In essence, these are harmonizations of the bebop scale using the I and V7b9 (vii dim7) chords. For example using a C-Major bebop scale

1,2,3,4,5,♭6,6,7 => C,D,E,F,G,A♭,A,B  

We harmonize each note using only the I-Maj6 or the vii-diminished chords (which is the rootless V7♭9). So every note belongs either to (C,E,G,A), or (D,F,A♭,B). Same can be constructed for minor, and dominant scales.

This on its own creates beautiful sounds, and its fun to play around it in a "modal" setting. However I don't really know how to use this theory and apply it to functional harmony; chord changes in jazz standards. Even the thought of applying this to a 2-5-1 makes little sense to me.

What are typical ways of applying Barry Harris voicings (as described here) to jazz standards?

EDIT: While writing this I came to the conclusion that the biggest challenge for me is to make coherence between the Barry Harris voicings and functional harmony. Harmonizing a Major scale in triads is what gives our characteristic chords (our ii-dorian, iii-phrygian, IV-lydian, V-Mixolydian, etc). This of course vanished when we re-harmonize.

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Different voicings for different chords

A different set of voicings, derived from the appropriate bebop scale, is used for each chord. Over the I chord, the voicings come from the major bebop scale and alternate between the major I6 and vii°7 chords. This is because the stable scale degrees (1, 3, 5, and 6) tend to sit on the downbeats, so we'll hear the sound of the I chord on the downbeats and a passing chord, vii°7, on the upbeats. This principle of alternating between the main chord and passing chords is central to Barry Harris's harmonic concept, and also used widely in big band arranging.

Over ii and V, we generally use the mixolydian bebop scale. In C, that's G A B C D E F F#, adding a major 7. The two chord shapes outlined are G7 and F♯ø7, and a well-constructed melody usually again has G, B, D, and F on downbeats, so the F♯ø7 acts as a passing chord. (Occasionally, one note can be swapped around in order to create smooth voice leading; changing the E here to a E♭ to form F♯°7 is a natural choice.)

If the ii chord is held for a long time, you can also form a "dorian bebop scale" by adding a ♭6 or major 7. The specific chord voicings chosen will depend on the context, with the goal of having a ii7 sound on the downbeats and a passing chord on the upbeats.

Relationship between block voicings and functional harmony

EDIT: While writing this I came to the conclusion that the biggest challenge for me is to make coherence between the Barry Harris voicings and functional harmony. Harmonizing a Major scale in triads is what gives our characteristic chords (our ii-dorian, iii-phrygian, IV-lydian, V-Mixolydian, etc). This of course vanished when we re-harmonize.

I would say that when you use Barry Harris voicings (also called "block voicings"), you are essentially tonicizing whichever chord you are on at the moment. In the G7 example above, the passing chord is F♯ø7, which can be analyzed in C major as a secondary dominant: viiø7/V, or simply V9/V if we view F♯ø7 as a D9 with its root omitted.

When the harmony gets further away from the tonic, a good approach to writing block voicings is to try to pick a secondary dominant–type chord to alternate with the target chord. We often teach beginners to look at the corresponding bebop scales instead, but I think that secondary dominants are generally what's going on "under the hood."

For example, in C major you might have an E7 chord (as in "On the Sunny Side of the Street"). Naively, you might choose the E7 mixolydian bebop scale to harmonize this, alternating between E7 and D♯ø7 voicings. But a more perceptive arranger recognizes the E7 as V/vi in C major, and thus will choose a harmonization that sits better with local A minor context. Drawing on the A harmonic minor scale, I would modify the E7 mixolydian bebop scale's F♯ to an F and C♯ to C (implying E7♭9♭13). Then the two block chords are E7 and F7, where the latter could be analyzed as subV/V in A minor.

An example

Here, I embellished the melody of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and harmonized it using (mostly) block chords. Blue denotes regular block chord voicings, olive is drop-2 block chords, and red is for "something else."

enter image description here

Notice that in the second (full) bar, I have used the E7-F7 chord pair as described above for the first three beats. But, on beat 4, we have the note C on a downbeat, which won't sound nice with the F7. Instead, I "pretended" the melody note was a B and wrote the corresponding drop-2 E7 voicing that would've gone with that; now, altering the B to C creates a E7♭13 sound. This is the sort of subjective choice you get to make in edge cases like this.

Likewise, on beat 4+, we have the note C♯, which belongs neither to the current E7 chord nor the F major chord that follows. Again subjectively, I decided to just take the F6 voicing from beat 1 of the next measure and move it down a half step to create uniform chromatic motion. (This is called "planing," and it's perfectly acceptable in jazz even if it creates parallel fifths. We're done with freshman music theory now!)

In the third measure, I harmonized the Fmaj7 as an F6; it's perfectly fine to swap the note D for an E (restoring Fmaj7) in these voicings unless F is in the melody (which creates a dissonance).

As for the red chords, in the first one I "pretended" the melody had a D and wrote the corresponding closed-position voicing for Bø7. On beat 2, I used a nice drop-2 voicing for F13, the secondary dominant of E7.

I hope this example makes it clear that in practice, there are often a few different block voicings options available a given note, and the choice comes down to habit and personal taste. And there's no need to use block voicings exclusively—you can mix in other kinds of block voicing to punctuate certain notes and keep the lower voices in a nice range.

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    Thank you for that great update. One question to that last paragraph: The resulting E mixolydian with a flatted 9th still contains a C# right? How do you get the F7? Is it the b6 that is introduced in the mixolydian-bebop scale as well (like you pointed out in the 2nd paragraph, to form the fully diminished passing chord, instead of the half-dim). – hirschme May 11 at 1:28
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    Great catch. Yes, I would modify the C# to a C as well. The idea is an A harmonic minor scale with an added Eb. – Max May 11 at 1:35
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    Tons of great info in this answer. The focus on applying this technique to different chord pairs is really valuable. The E7-F7 chord pair is interesting but won't work in as many contexts as, e.g., CMaj-G7b9. +1. I do think there's still another question that hirschme has, which is "how do I use this and apply it in a song"? – jdjazz May 11 at 2:41
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    Absolutely! The Cmaj-G7b9 chord pair, which I have referred to as C6-B°7, is the "vanilla" choice for when you are sitting on a C chord. But applying the technique to a song requires you to do a functional analysis of the song and choose chord pairs or bebop scales that reflect the local harmonic function. Therefore, my attempt to answer that aspect of the question appears in the last paragraph. I think that cultivating a general awareness of the "chord pairs approach" will be more valuable for someone at @hirschme's level then simply trying to memorize which bebop scales go with which chords. – Max May 11 at 3:06
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    @hirschme, it's true that we can adapt it to other chords and extend the technique beyond what Barry Harris describes, and Max's description of the theoretical framework is on point. However, I do think it's worth pointing out that we're still only applying the technique while on a single chord at a time. That is, at its core, the technique is meant to be applied when the harmony is static (not when it's changing). Applying the technique to different chords doesn't change that from being the case. If the underlying harmony changes, we'll need to use a different chord pair and start fresh. – jdjazz May 11 at 17:07
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The chord pairs are used primarily to harmonize a melody that occurs on a single, static chord. The trick works really well when a melody walks up or down the bebop scale. There are two well-established versions. Using C as the root, they are:

  1. over CMaj, harmonize melody notes using these chords: CMaj6 - G7b9 (rootless)
  2. over Cmin, harmonize melody notes using these chords: Cmin6 - G7b9 (rootless)

The minor version can use a Cmin7 chord instead of Cmin6, but the natural 6th is a more traditional choice (and maybe more common).

Here's an example that uses both #1 and #2. For this melody: enter image description here

you could harmonize the first measure using CMaj - G7b9 (rootless), and you could harmonize the second measure using Dmin7 - A7b9 (rootless): enter image description here

In short, the technique doesn't require that the underlying chord progression change from CMaj-G7-CMaj-G7. We add those V chords (G7) ourselves as the progression stays on CMaj. The same goes for Dmin: the underlying progression doesn't need to be switching from Dmin-A7-Dmin-A7 to use the technique. Instead, we add the V chord (A7) while the progression simply stays on Dmin. Adding these extra V chords works so well because the V-I resolution is so strong. Those V chords sound great as passing chords.

As the example shows, you want to be careful of overusing this technique. Switching up your voicings (to #11 chords, upper structure chords, etc.) can help keep your voicings from getting stale. The technique can be used in lots of contexts: from harmonizing the melody of a song to harmonizing an improvised line to harmonizing a shout chorus for a big band arrangement. And like you mentioned, it sounds great with drop 2 voicings.

This is a more practical "how to" answer. Max's answer gives outstanding exposition of how to understand, conceptualize, and stretch the approach to different scenarios.

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  • can I ask what is happening in the third bar? How would you apply the Barry Harris voicings for that descending chromatic line? (Amin , Ab7, Gmin, G7 --> This is a ii-subV-ii-subV with the tritone sub on each V, which is already in itself the passing chord approach) – hirschme May 11 at 4:29
  • Great answer! You inspired me to write out my own example :) – Max May 11 at 5:07
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    @hirschme, the technique that Barry Harris describes doesn't work over those changes. There were a couple reasons I wanted to show measures 3-4: (a) Barry didn't envision applying this technique to all chords, and (b) we have to be a little careful of overusing the technique, or else it can start to sound stale. Bill Evans used it, but he mixed it up with lots of other great chordal movement too--even when he was ascending up the scale (combination triads, inner voice movement, etc.). – jdjazz May 11 at 13:27
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    "a) Barry didn't envision applying this technique to all chords" This is something every tutorial on this skips, and the reason why I was frustrated trying to apply it to songs (just for practice, not performance). I think that, together with Max's example of how to derive and apply, are the perfect combination of answers. Thank you for this great example – hirschme May 11 at 14:47
  • @hirschme, I think the original idea was pretty narrow. If I were working with a student, I'd say to master CMaj-G7b9 & Cmin6-G7b9 in all 12 keys, and then find a couple songs to apply it to. I'd tell them to be careful about trying to extend the technique far beyond that, because that's just one trick. Variety is important, so it may be more beneficial to practice a different technique next. For ex, you can voice Dmin using a Dmin triad 2nd inversion in the left hand & a CMaj triad 2nd inversion in the right hand, stacked on top. Move that shape up the scale & use it to harmonize melodies. – jdjazz May 11 at 17:23

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