To reharmonize or not to reharmonize?

When I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I had the pleasure of studying jazz piano with the great jazz pianist Billy Taylor. Billy was a master of reharmonization, meaning that he would change to chords to jazz standards, adding his own harmonies as he went along. He used to tell me stories of how he would listen to Art Tatum and a pianist named Clarence Profit do this for hours at a time. They would repeat a song’s melody over and over, challenging each other to improvise new harmonies for each chorus.

Reharmonization was a new concept for me at the time, and I marveled at the fresh sounds that Taylor would draw out of the commonly-played jazz standards such as Take The ‘A’ Train and “They Can’t Take Me Away From You.” Following in his footsteps, I worked out elaborate sequences of substitute chords on tunes like “Misty” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” I still use those harmonies to this day.

But I was still confused by the intent. After all, I reasoned, if the chords sounded good to begin with, why would we want to change them?

I asked Billy Taylor about this, and he answered that it was simply another means of self-expression, similar to improvising melodically on a song’s melody. That made sense to me. It’s not “changing the chords as an end in itself.” But rather, adding new chords may help us “flavor” a song in a highly personal way.

I’ve been playing John Coltrane’s blue “Blue Train” lately, and have found myself adding some extra chords that I’ve never used before. Listen to the first chorus, which is a simple 3-chord blues, and then how the reharmonization in the second chorus casts the melody in a new light:

Blue Train

Reharmonization is a whole new world to explore, and can help keep your music fresh and exciting, both for you and your listeners.

Good luck and have fun!

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