Bibliography, Thanks.

I want to thank the following people for helping me in this project:

Barak Schmool

Eugene de Montalembert

Liam Noble


Mathieu, W.A. Harmonic Experience, Inner Traditions Bear and Company (April 1997).

Levy, Ernst. A Theory of Harmony, SUNY press, 1985.

Fischlin, D and Heble, A. The Other Side of Nowhere, Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Coleman, S. Symmetrical Movement Concept,

Coleman, S. The Dozens: Steve Coleman on Charlie Parker,

The various videos available on the M-Base website dealing specifically with “Polarity”, Tonal movements, “Harmonic Paths”.

Navigate the Negative. Negative “All the Things You Are”

In this video I play a quick solo over the standard All the Things You Are, using negative harmony ideas. I don’t use it everywhere, in fact, only in a few places. I provide a chords sheet again, to explain my thinking. There is a recurring use of the negative dominant cycle corresponding to the “backdoor” one to go to Ebmaj7 bars 10 to 12 (like in the Rhythm Changes) or again to go to Abmaj7 in bars 26 to 28. In other places I use the regular negative dominant cycle (Bars 3-4, bars 6-7, bars 17-20…). Bars 33-35 I use the negative equivalent of bVI7, V7, I in Abmaj7, which means “jumping” across 2 negative cycles, from Abm6 to Db-6, to Abmaj7. There is a slight blip at the end of the solo in bar 38, i started out on a Bdim idea but the Piano player plays a Bm7. I tried changing my mind halfway through but failed.

Here’s the solo map:

Solo map of All the Things You Are, using Negative Harmony
Solo map of All the Things You Are, using Negative Harmony

Navigate the Negative. Negative Rhythm Changes – my way.

In this video, I play 2 choruses of Rhythm Changes in Bb, the first one is a (rather tame) version of what I’d normally do in positive harmony on Rhythm Changes, and the following chorus incorporates some negative harmony ideas. You may recognize phrases very close to some of Steve Coleman’s own phrases in places.

You will find underneath the video a chord sheet explaining my thinking in the 2nd chorus. I’ll explain/analyze it quickly.

Map of the chord choices in the second half of my solo
Map of the chord choices in the second half of my solo

The first four bars spell the negative dominants cycle in the key of Bb.

The Bm6 to Eb is the same movement that Steve Coleman does in his Rhythm Changes solo and can be seen 2 ways. as an E7 – tritone substitution, or as the negative dominant of F# Major, a minor third away from Eb, but resolving to Eb.

A2 is in a way a very long cycle of dominants beginning on Am6 (negative dominant equivalent of B7) and going on to Em6, to Bm6, to F#m6, to C#m6. Abm6 is missed out and we go straight to Ebm6. We pick up the cycle earlier again – Em6 to Bm6, leading us to Eb.

The lead up to the bridge and the bridge follow the same cycles as in Steve Coleman’s first “alternate paths” chorus.

The last A follows again logical negative dominant paths, refer to the diagram to find their logic!

Playing Steve

In this post we have a video of myself playing the first 2 choruses of Steve Coleman’s solo on the Rhythm Changes, in the alternate paths section. We have already published the written transcription (and analyzed it) in an earlier post, but we will include it again here for convenience. The performance isn’t perfect, but its the best I could do in the short amount of time i had…

Steve Coleman Solo 2nd chorus of Rhythm Changes alternate paths section.
Steve Coleman Solo first 2 choruses of Rhythm Changes alternate paths section.

Steve Coleman Solo, first chorus of Rhythm Changes tracks, alternate paths section.

Negative cycles, round the keys

In this post I publish a first little video of myself trying to use negative harmony. I simply play “negative II V I VI” in all the keys. It’s the straight forward direct negative version of a standard II7 V7 IMaj VI7 progression. It’s a little boring to watch, and doesn’t sound that exciting especially as I’m using mainly 2 types of phrases, which I transpose in all the keys. You can find the actual progression I’m playing on the chords sheet underneath the video.

Negative IIm V7 IM VI7 in all keys from Jean de Talhouet on Vimeo.

negative cycles cadences to Major I
II V I VI Cadences in all the major keys following their respective negative dominant cycles

This chords sheet shows what harmony i’m actually playing in the video. Note that on the last 2 bars of the repeat of each key i stay on the Imaj7 (I don’t play the negative dominant again as that would get me back into the cycle).

Steve Coleman, negative harmony and the Jazz “approach/language/tradition”.

Steve Coleman’s use of negative harmony is in many ways a direct “extension” of the way bebop players he admired and learnt from, thought about jazz.

In a few videos dealing with negative harmony, Steve Coleman mentions how important the music of Charlie Parker has been for him in his formative years. He specifically says in one video that the study of Rhythm Changes was “very interesting… Extremely interesting” to him, and specifically, the study of what bebop players (mainly Charlie Parker, but in the video he also mentions Von Freeman and Clifford Brown as examples) would do with them. Rhythm Changes being essentially turnarounds, Steve Coleman became aware that there was “a million ways” of doing these said turnarounds. He listened to Charlie Parker and heard him play things like Dm C#m | C7 B7 in the first four bars, for example.

Even though Steve Coleman incorporates negative dominants as possible alternate substitutions  (or ‘paths’) in his playing, he does so with a phrasing, and an awareness of the bebop players approach, which make his “negative ideas” very “musical” and “sit harmoniously side by side” with the substitutions that became a part of the bebop language and tradition. His negative ideas feel like a part (or an extension) of the tradition. For example, in the first bar of his “alternate paths” section of his solo in the Rhythm Changes, he starts with Bb, C#m6. This C#m6 sound is actually not very far from the G7 or C#7 sound that we would be more accustomed to at this point. Indeed C#m6 stresses familiar tension notes of G7, ie the b9, the #9, the #11 and the 13th, almost like a G7b9-13 would sound. It stresses these notes in a certain way because playing a Cm#6 arpeggio at that point will spell the tension notes of G7 in a particular order, giving a certain melodic flavour, characteristic of the C#m6, but this “flavour” is part of the new “negative harmony aesthetic”. What is interesting is how the next chord, Abm6 is a lot further away in sound from the Cm7 or maybe C7 that we would normally hear at this point. Hence these harmonic paths enable Steve Coleman to weave closely towards our familiar harmonic conception of rhythm changes as well as further away from our conception, in a new way…

Moreover, the very logic of superimposing dominant cycles on a given passage of a tune is a ‘very bebop thing to do’ and Steve Coleman is in a way, just doing this, but with negative dominants. For example, Sonny Rollins may start the first 2 bars of a solo in a blues in F playing a line that follows G7 C7 | F7 Bb7 | F / / / | ; That would be the idea of adding dominant cycles to lead to a chord, where the conventional harmony would in fact be more simple… Listening to it, one might think Sonny Rollins is playing “chromatically” within the F7 sound, which is true, but his lines also actually imply other chords. Steve Coleman does this as we saw above in the last 4 bars of the bridge of his solo, for example, where there are 3 negative dominant chords leading back to the I, although normally there would only be 2 dominant chords in those four bars.

There is another very important point to be made in relation to Steve Coleman’s thinking about negative dominants. It concerns the fact that a negative dominant is a minor 6 chord (in telluric terms, not in absolute terms, as we saw earlier!). More specifically, the negative dominant of a key is, in positive terms, essentially a IVm chord, that leads to I. This also brings us back to the bebop players and their impact on jazz language and tradition. In an important essay written by Steve Coleman on the music of Charlie Parker, he analyses Bird’s solos in various recordings. In one of them Steve Coleman tells us something that seems to have had an important effect on his own understanding of the tradition and harmonic conceptions of the bebop players. He points out additionally that their harmonic conception was actually pretty simple. Let us include here the entire paragraph that is relevant to our discussion, taken from the essay entitled “THE DOZENS: STEVE COLEMAN ON CHARLIE PARKER” by Steve Coleman (Ted Panken editor), and found on

In this paragraph, Steve Coleman discusses Bird’s solo in the Rhythm Changes track “Celebrity”, found on the CD Bird – The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve (Verve VE2 2512), which was recorded in October 1950

The bridge is even more varied, with Bird’s melodic paths creating their own internal logic, which then resolve back into the logic of the composition.

|| Ebmin6 | Amin6 Ebmin6 | Dmin | Fmin6 | Gmin6 (maj7) | Gmin6 | Cmin6 | (F7) ||

With a little thought, you will notice that these passing tonalities provide the same function as the composed harmonic structure of the song. Notice here that Yard is doing just what he stated in two different versions of the same quotation:

I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That’s when I was born. (c. 1939, quoted in Masters of Jazz )

I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive. (1955, Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya )

However, Parker’s version of higher intervals of a chord was not in the form of flatted 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, but in the form of simple melodic and triadic structures that reside at a higher location within the tonal gamut which I refer to as the Matrix (who really knows how Bird thought of it?). In this case, simple minor structures such as Ebmin6, Amin6 and Fmin6 are the upper intervals of Ab7, D7 and Bb7, respectively. These minor triads with an added major sixth are very important structures in music, often mistakenly called half-diminished (for example Amin6 could be called F# half-diminished today). In this instance, the function of Amin6 is that of dynamic A minor, in the same sense that the function of D7 is that of dynamic D major. By dynamic I mean energized with the potential for change. Adding a major 6th to a minor triad has a similar (but reciprocal) function to adding a minor 7th to a major triad, and that function in many cases is to energize the triad, to infuse it with a greater potential for change, due to the perceived unstable nature of the tritone interval. Pianist Thelonious Monk was a master of this technique, and demonstrated this to many of the other musicians of this time (including Dizzy and Bird). Regarding whether to use the name half-diminished or minor triad with the added 6th, this is a case where a simple change in name can obscure the melodic and harmonic function of a particular sound. Dizzy Gillespie mentions this in his autobiography when he says that for him and his colleagues, there was no such thing as half-diminished chords; what is called a half-diminished chord today, they called a minor triad with a major sixth in the bass.

Monk doesn’t actually know what I showed him. But I do know some of the things he showed me. Like, the minor-sixth chord with a sixth in the bass. I first heard Monk play that. It’s demonstrated in some of my music like the melody of “Woody ‘n You,” the introduction to “Round Midnight,” and a part of the bridge to “Mantaca.”…. There were lots of places where I used that progression… and the first time I heard that, Monk showed it to me, and he called it a minor-sixth chord with a sixth in the bass. Nowadays, they don’t call it that. They call the sixth in the bass, the tonic, and the chord a C-minor seventh, flat five. What Monk called an E-Flat-minor sixth chord with a sixth in the bass, the guys nowadays call a C-minor seventh flat five… So they’re exactly the same thing. An E-Flat-minor chord with a sixth in the bass is C, E-flat, G-flat, and B-flat. C-minor seventh flat five is the same thing, C, E-flat, G-flat, and B-flat. Some people call it a half diminished, sometimes. (from the chapter “Minton’s Playhouse” in To Be or Not To Bop)

Reviewer: Steve Coleman

The sentence I find particularly insightful in this paragraph in the light of what we’ve found out regarding negative harmony is: “Adding a major 6th to a minor triad has a similar (but reciprocal) function to adding a minor 7th to a major triad”. This is a cheeky, undercover reference to negative harmony theory, where in truth the “minor 6th” is actually the 7th of the negative dominant. Hence, obviously it has the same function as adding a 7th to a positive dominant.

I’d like to add that I have always actually thought of the minor 6 as quite a strong sound, contrary to what pianist Liam Noble once told me (“it’s quite a bland sound” – I respect his opinion, because he has no doubt plenty of ideas about potent and strong harmonic structures!) precisely because of the presence of the tritone. This tritone is between the 3rd and the 6th (but if we think in terms of negative harmony, it is indeed between the 3rd and the 7th too!)

We could write a theoretical aside about the importance of the tritone in music and functional harmony to “generate change”, but we will assume that what is written above will suffice for now. Not enough time!

I also find quite interesting the fact that, in a way, the negative dominant sound could be said to hark back to an even earlier time in jazz, where the IVminor chord would often be used. I personally like that sound very much, being very moved by the lyricism and melodicism of some earlier jazz forms, more specifically with the sound of Django Reinhardt and his legacy (notably Fapy Lafertin and Tcha Limberger, who have both moved me tremendously with their music. Tcha Limberger in particular has an incredible melodic sensibility, but also some pretty sophisticated substitution abilities, which often are similar to those of jazz or be-bop players, but they “sound” different because of his sensibility and affiliation with the music of Django).

For example the chords of “What Is This Thing Called Love” in the A section would, in a more “swing jazz” or Jazz Manouche approach be:

C7 / / / | C7 / / / | Fm / / / | Fm(6)/ / /|

| G7 / / / | G7 / / / |CMaj / / / | CMaj/ / / || (repeat)

Sometimes less is more, the IIs get in the way (they actually sound bland to an extent, I would say) and it is perfectly possible to play very beautiful lines outlining that very simple progression.

An important point to be made remains. It is key to be aware that Steve Coleman’s use of negative harmony in a band context is quite a “solitary” affair. Indeed he says in a video that “the chances are, the rhythm section is probably going to be playing something else” to what the soloist is doing. That means essentially that they’re unlikely to be able to follow the soloist’s choices if he uses negative harmony. But I think this is precisely what is interesting about this process: the effect will be to have 2 simultaneous logics working in parallel (the positive and the negative) and musical interest will lie in their “unplanned/spontaneous interactions”. Some phrases/notes will sound “in”, others will sound “out” but in truth they’re never really “out”, they’re just part of an “alternate path”, which has it’s own direction, and the overall effect will be interesting as a result, as we have been able to hear already in Steve’s video.

Finally, let us quickly address the question: What about the 7th, when we think in positive terms, in Fm6? If we play the negative scale of Cmajor, G minor Phrygian, from F to F we find an Eb – the flat seventh. Well i think this note should be considered a passing tone because in negative terms it is only a major 6th. Steve Coleman doesn’t linger on it much. But he actually also occasionally plays a major 7th (in positive terms). In another video, he actually says that he usually plays a major 7th going up the scale, and a flat 7th when he goes downwards. This suits me, I also like the sound of the major 7th, in positive terms it does sound a little more “energised” than the flat 7th.

Next up: the first of a series of posts containing video documents my own process of integration of the Negative Harmony concept into my own playing.

Concept elucidation – what is negative harmony?

The first step for us in order to make sense of what we just heard in Steve Coleman’s video, is to carry out an investigation of the concept of negative harmony. A complete and accurate analysis of Steve Coleman’s playing will only be possible providing we have a clear understanding of this concept. We hope to present the information that follows in a logical and exhaustive way. It is partly based on Steve Coleman’s own explanations on “polar harmony”, which he gives in the 2 videos on Tonal Movements available to buy as a product on the M-Base community website, partly on Ernst Levy’s essay: A Theory of Harmony, SUNY Series in Cultural Perspectives, 1985, and partly on Steve Coleman’s own commentary of that essay, which can be found here: The last part of this article deals specifically with Ernst Levy’s polarity theory and how Steve Coleman uses it.

Let us consider first the C major scale and its negative counterpart.

(Click on the following picture:)

The C major scale and it's negative counterpart: G phrygian.
The C major scale and it’s negative counterpart: G minor phrygian.

Why is G minor phrygian the negative counterpart of C major Ionian?

Note that the intervalic structure of the ascending C major scale is the same one as the descending G phrygian scale. They have the same pattern of tones (t) and semi-tones (st). Moreover, in C major ionian, C is the tonic and G is the 5th. In the descending G minor phrygian, G is the tonic and C is the 5th. We can see that the functions of the tones of each scale are symmetrically inverted. The triad C-E-G has for negative triad counterpart C-Eb-G, but it is important to conceive this triad with G being the “generator” (but not the “tonic’ of the system, in this case) and the notes being played downwards from G. The tonic in this case actually remains C. In other words Gm Phrygian can be conceived as the negative ‘tonic’ scale of the C major scale. We have an “inversion of C major in G”. In his essay on Enrst Levy’s book A Theory of Harmony Steve Coleman comments on all of this in the following paragraph:

Keep in mind that what is normally called a minor triad is treated, in Levy’s theory, as a major triad generated from the top down. In other words there are only unisons, perfect fifths and major thirds in this theory. What would normally be called an F minor triad is a [major] triad in absolute mode (designated by the symbol o ) generated by C. This would be spelled C-Ab-F (thinking downward from the generator C) and has the same interval structure as a C triad in telluric adaptation (i.e. C-E-G thinking up from C), so symmetrical reasoning is necessary for thinking in absolute conception. So in absolute conception C-Ab-F (thinking downward) is a triad in absolute conception ‘generated’ by C but thinking in telluric adaptation this same harmonic cell is a minor triad with F as the ‘tonic’. As I mentioned before all major telluric adaptation cells produce the same result as upward absolute conception so the ‘generator’ C would be identical with the ‘tonic’ C in this case (i.e. C-E-G thinking upward).

Here Steve Coleman speaks of “telluric” harmony – what i would describe as harmony “operating in a world of unilateral gravitation towards a key”. But he speaks also of “absolute” harmony – where a central pitch becomes a “generator”. Of course our ears are not able to hear an F minor triad as a C major triad from top down. So we can’t really train ourselves to “hearing” in negative terms, but we can “think” in those terms, and the results will sound interesting nonetheless. And as far as Steve Coleman’s use of the concept in improvisation is concerned, which anchors itself completely in the “Jazz approach” and tradition, it actually does not really matter that we can’t “hear” in negative terms. We hear interesting “paths” nonetheless.

So, this is why G minor phrygian is the negative version of C major Ionian.

Following on from this, let us consider the harmonic movement of cadences and their “polar” or “negative” counterparts.

As Steve Coleman shows above, the negative version of the C-E-G triad is the minor triad F-Ab-C with C being the generator and the tonic. Remembering that the negative version of the C major scale is Gm phrygian, going downwards from G, we can find the F minor triad in that scale. Now remembering also that we must look at this Fm triad as actually being generated from C and going downwards, the next degree of the Gm Phrygian scale, a third down from F, ie the “7th”, would be D. In “positive terms” it may appear as the major 6th, but in negative terms, it is actually the 7th. We will call it the 6th from now on, but must remember that in negative terms it is the 7th. This is why the negative dominant of chord I of a key is a minor sixth chord. For Steve Coleman, the sixth in relation to F (ie D) is very important for many reasons, functional obviously, as well as being culturally relevant (ie, in relation to the evolution of the jazz tradition), as we shall explain later. For the time being, let us accept that the best (most useful and fundamental) way to express the negative dominant of C major is Fm6. In the same way as G7 is the best way to describe the positive dominant of C.

The following diagram shows how we obtain Fm6 as a negative dominant for C from the Gm phrygian scale. Here we go down so that Fm6 can actually be seen in negative terms, from C, going downwards. We can clearly see a major triad with flat 7th – the dominant chord structure.  Hence we have the “negative dominant” of C.

Fm6 with 6th in the bass (being actually the 7th in negative terms) is the negative dominant of C, with C being both the Tonic and the Generator
Fm6 with 6th in the bass (being actually the 7th in negative terms) is the negative dominant of C, with C being both the Tonic and the Generator

Let us also consider the symmetrical relationship, in the key of C major, between the (“postive”) dominant of the key, G7, and the negative dominant, Fm6. G is a fifth above C, and F is a fifth below C. We can equally conceive as G being a fourth below C (but still having it’s “positive” dominant function in the movement from G to C) and F being a fourth above C (and still having its “negative” dominant function in the movement F to C).

By studying Steve Coleman’s improvisation on the Rhythm Changes track in particular, I found that he substitutes a lot of the conventional changes with their negative counterparts, and even other “negative cycles” and thus following “alternate” paths, as he calls them, towards points of resolution. He does this to a very sophisticated degree, and the way I ended up making sense of all his choices was to use a diagram that composer, saxophonist and educator Barak Schmool showed me, representing all the possible cycles of dominant chords leading to a key and their respective negative counterparts. I was then able to match Steve Coleman’s paths with the various options presented in the diagram. Here is a version of this diagram in the key of Bb, since this is the key of the Rhythm Changes track which we will analyse next.

Diagram of
Diagram of “harmonic paths” in Bb. All the “positive” cycles of dominant chords leading to Bb and their negative equivalents.

This diagram presents all the possible cycles of dominants leading to Bb. The classic cycle of 5ths is presented on the left: G7, C7, F7, Bb. The top cycle resolves to Bb via B7, the tritone substitution of F7, has its own cycles of dominants leading to it: Db7, Gb7. To the left of this tritone substitution cycle we have a cycle which leads to Bb via Ab7, a minor third below B7, which we can conceive as belonging to the “diminished axis” of dominants leading to Bb. The Ab7 to Bb movement is also sometimes called the “backdoor” movement. Ab7 has its own subdominants: Bb7, Eb7. To the right of the tritone axis we have another dominant belonging to the dimished axis: D7, which can resolve to Bb. It has its own subdominants: E7, A7.

Each of these “positive” cycles has a negative equivalent, diametrically opposed in the diagram. Notice the symmetry in root movements in relation to the key. The negative chords go “up in 5ths” towards the key (or down in 4ths) whereas the positive dominants go “down in 5ths” (or “up in 4ths”) towards the key.

How is this diagram used in practice? The Rhythm Changes track provided on Steve Coleman’s video explains it all. The soloist can decide to play lines that follow any of the negative paths instead of the positive one. Since most functional music follows cadence cycles, the negative cycles can be super-imposed upon the conventional changes intended by the composer (and played by the rhythm section most of the time). Moreover, similarly as in positive harmony, different substitutions and combinations are possible. For example, where a soloist might play a bVI7 | V7 | I cadence, he may decide instead to play the negative version of that. In Bb, following the diagram, that would mean that he would substitute Gb7 | F7 | Bb by Dm6 | Ebm6 | Bb. (The bar symbol [ | ] is arbitrary). The possibilities are numerous.

The arrows in red indicate that it is possible to move from any “step 4” of a negative dominant to any of the next “step 3” negative dominant, to any “step 2” and finally resolve in the key. That means one can decide to follow a specific negative cycle through, or literally jump from one negative dominant to another, providing it belongs to the “next step” level. Voice leading will be respected and numerous paths can therefore be created. This is indeed something we will witness in Steve Coleman’s playing.

Let us then analyze the first chorus of “alternate paths” played by Steve Coleman on the Rhythm Changes track.

Steve Coleman Solo, first chorus of Rhythm Changes tracks, alternate paths section.
Steve Coleman Solo, first and 2nd choruses of Rhythm Changes tracks, alternate paths section.

Steve Coleman Solo 2nd chorus of Rhythm Changes alternate paths section.

The entire transcription of this solo is available as a PDF download on the M-Base website. We include here the first two choruses but there is already so much to discuss in the first one that we will let you try to make sense of the second one in the light of what we will find in the first one.

The chords written above the stave are not the conventional chords of the Rhythm Changes, they are the chords that Steve Coleman “spells” through his lines. The rhythm section plays the conventional changes, and Steve Coleman weaves in and out of them, sometimes playing them (usually in the points of resolution) but most often he superimposes his own progressions – his own “alternate paths”.

The line in the first four bars essentially corresponds to the following progression:

Bb C#m6 | Abm6 Ebm6 | F#m6 C#m6 | Abm Ebm6

If we look at our diagram of harmonic paths in Bb, we immediately see that Steve Coleman is spelling the cycle of negative dominants related to the classic positive turnaround I VI II V, III VI II V progression, which is actually the progression of the first four bars of Rhythm Changes. Indeed, the progression Bb G7 | Cm7 F7 | Dm7 G7 | Cm7 F7 has its exact negative version written in the diagram as Bb C#m6 | Abm6 Ebm6 | F#m6 C#m6 | Abm Ebm6. There could not be a clearer start to Steve Coleman’s solo using negative harmony.

However we must say that Steve Coleman treats the positive turnaround progression as being a cycle of dominant chords only. The Cm7 and the Dm7 are conceived as dominant chords. In a way this simplifies things a lot. There are negative harmony chords that are not dominant chords, in fact just like in positive harmony there is only one dominant chord – the m6 one. the IV chord in negative harmony is also a minor chord but the II, the III, and the VI chords, are obviously not dominant and they are major chords!  But in his improvisations Steve Coleman uses negative harmony to substitute only positive progressions that can be treated as dominant cycles and their substitutions.

The next two bars are interesting. We modulate to Eb. Steve Coleman choses to play Bm6, to lead to Eb. Bm6 is the negative of F#7, which is one of the dominants alongside the diminished axis of Eb. An example of using a negative dominant which is not the direct negative version of the normal dominant of a key. But if we think in positive terms, Bm6 can be conceived as an E7 with the B in the bass. And there we have a straight forward tritone substitution that leads to Eb. So this specific negative dominant (the one of the positive dominant up a minor third along the diminished axis from the tritone dominant) actually has an ambiguous nature! It can be perceived in two ways. Handy!

Now the next few bars are strange to me as they don’t seem to fit the theory, but I think Steve Coleman is taking liberties on purpose with the theory, and that he follows his ears and intuition more. I’m talking about the section from bar 40 to bar 45. The last two bars make sense: F#m6 to C#m6 to Abm6 to Ebm6. Again the same straight forward cycle of negative dominants leading to Bb. But bars 40 and 41 are strange. Am6 to Dm6 to Bm6 to C#m6. Dm6 and Am6 are in the diagram but here Steve Coleman plays them in reverse order. This makes sense as a progression in the positive sense… Then he goes to Bm6 which is Step 2 of another cycle of negatives… So i think in this specific case Steve Coleman is creating spontaneous superimpositions regardless of “logical functional substitutions”. He is really playing “out’!

Some very interesting things happen next, starting on the last bar before the bridge and all the way to the opening bar of the last A section. First let’s look at what happens harmonically. Steve Coleman anticipates the bridge a bar early and plays a negative cycle (Abm6 to Ebm6) in the key of Bb, which he resolves instead to G. But Abm6 to Ebm6 is actually also a negative cycle in the key of G, one that corresponds to the positive “backdoor” cycle we already identified. He then proceeds to play Fm6 in bars 51 and 52, which is the negative dominant of C, which we get to in bar 53. However instead of playing C, he plays Em6. Em6 is not very far from C7 as a sound. In fact it is Cmaj7b9. The B natural (major 7th of C) will maybe sound a little “out” for sure, but given the direction of his playing, it will just add “color”. From Em6, he follows the negative cycle related to the positive backdoor one in Bb, and leads us back to Bb in the first bar of the last A section. Rhythmically, Steve Coleman anticipates a lot on his points of destination in this section. The lead in to the bridge is quite dramatic, and so is the way out of the bridge, which begins at bar 53, with large sweeping arpeggios that spell three consecutive negative dominants (when normally there are only two positive dominants in these 4 bars) and that get rhythmically displaced, each arpeggio figure being 3 beats long. This is what I would describe as a very masterful use of negative harmony where Steve Coleman reconfigures the tune structurally by transforming its harmonic rhythm. It’s going further than substituting one chord for another, it’s writing new progressions that begin in unexpected places… The other interesting point to make here is that his choice of playing Em6 bar 53 is very clever: as we said Em6 can be seen as C7b9, so before embarking on a journey of “out sounding” negative dominants, Steve anchors us in a familiar sound, which also happens to belong to the cycle of negative dominants. This is a good example of where I think Steve Coleman’s use of the negative harmony firmly anchors itself in the jazz tradition. Let’s look at why. In our 3rd blog post!

Project Introduction


This “practice as research” project is an attempt to elucidate and to begin to assimilate a new specific method of improvisation as conceptualized by Steve Coleman, which he calls the “harmonic paths” method. He personally demonstrates this method through playing a couple of jazz standards and known jazz progressions in a few videos available on the M-Base community website. The basic tenet behind this Steve Coleman concept is a familiar one to jazz musicians – playing lines that follow different harmonic changes to the ones intended by the composer, but that usually resolve at the same important structural points of the original composition. This process is often called “super-imposition”. However, in practice, the level of sophistication with which Steve Coleman does this is pretty high, and we will see that a key element of his playing is what he calls “negative harmony”.

Steve Coleman is a very interesting musician, a little daunting to study, maybe, for the apparent complexity of the “innovations” he has brought to Jazz over the last 30 years or so, but I hope that the carrying out this project will lead me to understand and appreciate him and his music better and, to an extent, to “demystify” him a little, which I think is an important step to learning how to do something new – believing it is not impossible or unattainable.

This blog will follow my own process of making sense and integrating Steve Coleman’s concept. I will present and analyse transcriptions of his solos found in the videos presented on the M-BASE website. I will explain, in as far as my understanding of it goes, the negative harmony concept as used in these videos, and I will attempt to situate Steve Coleman’s approach and playing in the broader context of the Jazz tradition. Along the way, I will also post videos of myself integrating this concept into my own playing.

To begin I suggest watching the video which initially intrigued me and incited me to get started on this project.

The full video, which includes Steve Coleman’s entire solo on the rhythm changes, a couple of solos on the tune Donna Lee and his own useful, but too succinct commentary on the processes involved in his playing, is available for free on here when you register for free.