David Maw

Chord-Voicing and Chord-Type in Oscar Peterson's Standard Playing of 1959

The distinction between counterpoint and harmony has become an essential part of the Western understanding of polyphonic music, even if it has been negotiated variously by different theorists. The distinction is relatively simple to manage for music of the common-practice period (1400-1900), in which chords are triadic and all notes not belonging to a triad can be relegated to counterpoint. Jazz harmony, though, is characterised by the use of extended chords (7ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths can be regularly found both singly and in various combinations) and of added-note chords (triads are often filled out with one or more of 2nds, 4ths, 6ths and 7ths); and both of these threaten to undermine the distinction between counterpoint and harmony by admitting into the chord-type elements that are usually evaluated as dissonant and as belonging to the contrapuntal elaboration of harmony.
This paper proposes to consider a way of retaining the distinction between counterpoint and harmony for the consideration of jazz harmony through mediation of the concept of chord-voicing (the vertical spacing and distribution of notes in the presentation of chords). It will use as a case-study the work of Oscar Peterson, a pianist noted for his mastery of all types of jazz harmony, in performances from his early maturity (1959), focusing in particular on trio renditions of Coleman and Leigh's Witchcraft and Comden, Green and Styne's Just in Time, both recorded in Paris on 18th May for the A Portrait of Frank Sinatra album and both presenting the melodies almost exclusively in block chords. These recordings will be analysed to show how the concept of chord-voicing may assume a central role in the comprehension of polyphonic texture by identifying chord-type within the harmonic domain and dissenting melodic notes in the contrapuntal domain.