Although we tend to lump all “jazz ballads” together, we can in fact begin to understand them in a new way if we study how they’ve evolved over time. Their chord progressions in particular can yield great insight.
Here’s some historical perspective on the evolution of jazz ballads:
Jazz musicians began playing ballads by adapting slow popular songs to a jazz context. The pop songs of the Great American Songbook era typically used a lot of ii/V/I chord progressions which gave them their characteristic sound. Here’s an example of this type of jazz ballad, courtesy of the great jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.
Teddy Wilson: Body and Soul
Here’s my version of the tune:
Since jazz musicians often like to compose their own material, they began to write tunes in this same style, with similar harmonies. The big difference is that since these tunes weren't necessarily meant to be sung, the composers have more leeway to write complex harmonies and melodies. They still have a melodic quality, but they don't have to be "singable." Here’s a wonderful tune in this style, Quiet Now, which was composed by Denny Zeitlin and is here interpreted by Bill Evans.
Bill Evans: Quiet Now
Taking this further, jazz musicians have also written ballads that have the same overall sound, but use chord progressions that aren’t directly derived from popular song. Chick Corea constructed his famous jazz ballad, Crystal Silence, by using a series of chords that move up by 5ths, rather than 4ths. In traditional harmony, these are called “retrogressions” (as opposed to progressions) and give the music a more relaxed, gentle feeling.
Have a listen:
Chick Corea: Crystal Silence
Here’s a video I made, with some more of an overview:
Understanding the concepts here will help us play our repertoire with more sensitivity to the harmonic material at hand, as well and help us see each piece we play in a way that reflects the composer’s viewpoint. By the way, all of these tunes are in The Real Book so if you have a copy (and you should!), you can study them more closely yourself.
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