Passing Chords and Something Else?

A teacher I was working with several years ago, suggested I play the second bar of The Nearness of You as shown in the attachment.

I love the way it sounds and it’s always been fun.
I’ve been doing shell voicings of the C7, B7 and Bbm7 and then just taking down the right hand as shown. I would love to incorporate this in other songs, but I don’t fully understand what’s going on and why it sounds so good to me.
I emailed this to Hayden. He replied:
"C7 to B7 to Bb-7 could be viewed as a 251 cadence but the 2 chord (C-7 or C-7b5) is now dominant C7, the V7 chord would be F7, but you are using the tritone sub B7, and that will take you to Bb-7. Any dominant chord will have a strong pull either a 5th down, or a half step down. In this case we are utilising that half step motion. In your context with this tune, you are harmonising that descending melody line into Bb-7 by playing a dominant 7th chord under each melody note. These chord can be called passing chords. "

He also encouraged me to post this, so here it is.
I think I understand what he’s saying, and that’s enlightening, What I’m still wondering about is what is it about the connection between the Ab chord over C7 and the G chord over B7 that sounds so good to me?

Hi Wendy :wave:

Reading the following point, I now have a better understanding of your question.

  • Ab triad over C7 = C7#5#9

  • G triad over B7 = B7#5#9

These are both upper structure triad voicings - more specifically a major triad built from the #5 of the dominant chord. For both chords you are playing the triad in its 1st inversion to harmonise the descending melody to line into Bb-7.

Delightful voicings :star_struck:

I will take another look in the morning and send you some additional examples and explanations to further explain how this can be used in jazz harmony.


Also check out our course on Altered Harmony where we discuss the theory behind these voicings:

You are correct that there is something else going on here - it’s a combination of descending passing chords, and the #5#9 UST that makes this sounds great.

Oh dear, altered chords and upper structures… I have wandered into deep waters, haven’t I? I guess my ears are more sophisticated than my fingers. Oh well, I’ve got plenty of time. Thanks for solving the mystery.

Hi Wendy :wave:

Upper Structures are really not that hard to understand and it will open doors for you with jazz harmony.

I recently created an intro tutorial on USTs which was supposed to be a 5-min masterclass but it ended up at 18 minutes. I’d recommend checking out that lesson first:

and then move onto the Altered Harmony course, you can find the link here.

Also print a copy of the UST cheat sheet, here it is:

Upper-Structure-Cheat-Sheet.pdf (949.5 KB)

There are just 4 common upper structure triad formulas that can be applied to dominant chords in any key. The information in the download above is everything you need to remember so I recommend that students print this out and stick in near the piano before embarking on upper structure study.

Both upper structures in your “Nearness Of You” arrangement are US#5 which is a major triad built from the #5.

Before long these formulas will become second nature when you see a dominant chord.

Thank you Hayden. It’s not quite as intimidating as I imagined. It will take work, but looks like it’s well worth you. You are such a wonderful instructor.

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So I’m diving into upper structures.
It seemed to me that one way to figure out what to play was when you see a dominant chord, go to the melody note and using the cheat sheet, work backward But this didn’t always work.
For example: The second chord of Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most

is a Bb13 chord, I go to the melody note and if it were a b9 or a 13 I could go to the third column of the Upper Structure cheat sheet and find that note and plug in the other upper structure chord tones. But here the melody note is the 5 of Bb. No upper structure there.
Before I possibly go further down the down track, please tell me whether I’m doing something wrong; or is the Bb13 not the right chord?
Or maybe you can’t play an upper structure over all dominant chords?

Hi Wendy :wave:

Great question.

In the case on your lead sheet excerpt, I would play the following voicing:

Left hand: Bb (root) and Ab (b7)

Right hand: B natural (b9), D (maj3), and F the melody note.

You could look at this as a B diminished triad over Bb7, but I find that overly complicated.
The easiest way for me to view this would be the Bb13b9 US, but we have replaced the 13 with the 5 so that the voicing works with the melody note.

Either that, or just a basic Bb7 voicing with the b9. Think of both and find which viewpoint works best for you.

No you are not doing anything wrong here. Continue! You should be encountering these kind of things, then asking questions, that’s how we learn.

If the melody note is not listed on the cheat sheet - which is only 3 notes of the chromatic scale - the 5th which you have found here, the major 7th which we wouldn’t find in a jazz standard over a dominant 7th, and the natural 4th.

If it is the natural 4th, we would generally play a sus voicing.

A key takeaway from this is that when the 5th is in the melody over a dominant chord, we are limited with pure UST options. We could reharmonise the harmony or change the melody but right now the key is to remember that when the 5th is in the melody, it can be nice to add the b9 in your right hand to add a subtle altered quality to the chord.

Yes that is also true.

If we played an upper structure on every single dominant chord, our playing could sound too rich and dense. Sometimes, the nicest thing you can play is just the vanilla dominant voicing of root, 3 and b7. Variety is key.

The voicing I suggested above just contains the b9 and no other alterations or extensions which to my ears sounds beautiful.

Check out this forum post where I explain in more detail, and I also use the analogy of a chocolate cake which a great teacher once told me :grinning: