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Augmented Chords and Harmonic Minor in Davy Mooney's "Wrinkles"

Jul 20 | Posted by: Robert Sabin |

While playing through a tune for an upcoming tour (“Wrinkles” by guitarist Davy Mooney) I was really taken by a particular sequence of harmonies centering on a Gbma7#5 chord.  This led to an afternoon exploring harmonic minor, and the various possibilities of intuiting tonality within this sound.  Click here for the examples discussed below.

The tune begins with a vamp, G-9 to Ebmin(maj)7 (Example 1).   While improvising my first unconscious approach was to play an Eb melodic minor scale over this second chord, as countless teachers and players have suggested.  I was playing very automatically, still trying to get the sound of the harmony in my ear.  I found this particular approach wasn’t generating the logical melodies I was after; something wasn’t clear.  Some explorations led to two contrasting ways of hearing this chord, both that would be grounded in what key I heard it to be an expression of.  Key was central to my hearing, not the chord itself per-se. 

The first key was playing the A natural over the chord and hearing how logical it sounded melodically.  Combined with the Bb, D, Eb, and Gb (F#) my ear was pulled toward a G harmonic minor type of melodic line.  This approach was very clear to my ear, and I could create melodies that were in line with my hearing of the harmony G minor, expressed with an F natural in the first two bars and with an additional F# in bars 3-4.  The F natural seemed to have a melodic pull toward the Eb, completing an 8-note pitch set that is ubiquitous in much bebop improvising that exploits minor tonalities.  Example 3 shows some sample melodies that align with hearing of these chords in the key of G minor, with the nested sound of D7 tucked into the melodic line.

Later, a similar chord (Gbmaj7#5) appears, but proceeded by an Ebmaj7#11 chord (example 2).  This chord contains the same internal pitches, and could be heard in the same manner; a D7-G minor tonality albeit with less (if any) emphasis on G natural.  This chord could also be heard also as relating to Eb harmonic minor (Bb7) however because of the beautiful ambiguity inherent in the augmented triad.  Example 4 shows the same 8-note pitch collection, this time outlining an expanded Eb harmonic minor followed by some sample phrases using this approach.

Both of these approaches work over either chord, and can be explored so as to express some very unusual tonal colors.  This is a result of intuiting the function of the chord in two different ways:  In the first the chord represented a dominant function, pulling away from G minor but not leaving the host tonality.  The alternative is to hear the chord functioning as a tonic, creating an Eb minor tonality with a dominant Bb7 nested melodically in the line.  The difference in the way Davy casts this chord leads one’s ear toward different tonal implications that should not be pigeonholed by a single chord/scale approach, and if given space offers numerous intriguing possibilities. 

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