On Monday, March 2, 1959, pianist Bill Evans sat in with Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), and Julius “Cannonball” Adderley to record the first track So What on Miles Davis’ legendary jazz album Kind Of Blue. This is one of the most recognizable jazz tunes ever.
The Birth Of The “So What Chord”
This modal tune was comprised of two modes, D Dorian and Eb Dorian. Bill Evans’ comping on So What became iconic. The chord voicing he played most prominently throughout the form eventually became known by theorists and future musicians as the “So What chord.”
The “So What Chord” Structure
This is a chord voicing that ought to be in every cocktail pianist’s toolbox. As a soloist, you’ll likely find it to be especially flavorful when playing ballads. It can be very effective for introductions, too.
Let’s take a look…
We’ll use mode of D Dorian for illustration. Here is the D Dorian mode:
Keep in mind that, in modal playing, there are no “avoid” notes. In other words, all the scale tones work for both melody and harmony.
As we take a look at two chord structures that Bill Evans comped for this mode, it is clear that all seven tones of the Dorian mode are used:
As you can see, the “So What chord” is a voicing that consists of three perfect 4th intervals topped off by a major 3rd. The rather contemporary texture of those consecutive perfect 4ths in conjunction with the consonance of the Major 3rd is very distinct.
Since these two structures are derived from the D Dorian, remember that we have seven tones in this mode. The two above have A and B, respectively, as the top chord tones, Therefore, we actually have five more possibilities, making seven in total.
Yes, it’s true that the “perfect 4th – major 3rd” formula P4-P4-P4-M3 doesn’t exactly apply with all of those others (it does when you arrive at the top note being E) . However, we are still within the Dorian mode which results in some pretty interesting harmony. In context, when used properly, they can certainly add some stylish “pizzazz” to your playing.
Modal Harmony Can Spice Up Your Ballads
Let’s take a look at one way we can use this “So What chord” and its Dorian “neighbors” in our cocktail piano playing:
Now, it’s up to you, the creative player that you are, to discover more musical scenarios in which you can use these chord voicings to add some “modal flair” to your favorite standards.