The great pianist/composer Russell Ferrante (of the Yellowjackets) has a unique brand of chordal harmony. While much of what he plays is as rich and complex as chocolate cake, it could be argued that many of his voicings borrow from the spare harmonies of 19th-century hymns. Namely, the four-note SATB construction: melody, bass and two inner harmony notes. The idea being that instead of tonic, third and fifth, what if those notes relied on jazz harmony instead?
Look at the first three chords below. At first glance, it looks like the construction of a hymn voicing. Yet there’s so much more going on here.
(click image to expand)
Here’s a breakdown on all of the examples:
The Aeolian Minor chord, this is one that uses the flat 6th instead of the Dorian sound more commonly associated with jazz. It’s often notated as a triad stack based on the minor 6th — e.g., Ab/C (the first chord shown). Ferrante, to amplify this somber chord, positions the 5th and flat 6th such that you have a pair of perfect fifths a half-step apart (C-G + Ab-Eb). It’s a lush sonority and one that he uses constantly.
Chords #2, #4, as well as the last two, are variations on this voicing. The B2/Eb chord simply adds a seventh to the minor aeolian sound, but you still see the stack of Db-Bb + B-F# as before. The Abmaj9/C and Ebmaj9/C provide an even richer version of this.
Notice that the right-hand portion of the last two chords have identical shapes (1 -> M2 -> P4 ->M3), i.e., transpose the first up a fifth to get the second. This notion of chords as shapes can be universally applied, not just to Ferrante, but to the whole language of chord voicing. Roots ground a chord to a particular harmony, but the shapes, when applied to different roots, create entirely different chords. For fun, try switching the bass note on the Abmaj9/C to a G, then try a B. Experiment!
The Sus simplified: Notice in the third chord, the B-flat sus, how he stacks a fourth in the left hand against a sixth in the right, placing the tension note, the fourth, in the lower register. This is a fantastic voicing. Steal it.
Not all of his voicings are instantly beautiful. Ferrante likes dissonance too.
The polychord sound of two triads a half step apart, the D/Eb voicing above, provide a nice voicing for the classic diminished major seven chord.
There are others, but I thought I’d start simple. Enjoy.
Definitive Ferrante YJ recordings: Four Corners, Greenhouse, Club Nocturne.