Flirting with C

March 25, 2013

by Scott Dailey

Nominally composed in E♭, “Moment’s Notice” by John Coltrane employs numerous key centers and can be devilishly confusing to hear and play.  In this new analysis, we see how Coltrane surreptitiously organizes the piece around the key of C, feinting toward it on many occasions before driving off toward various other tonal destinations.

What makes “Moment’s Notice” so hard to learn, play and even follow as a listener? A bewildered musician who calls himself “James3” on asks this typical question: “Is there a pattern or analysis to the harmony? Some of the ii – Vs seem very random.”

As it turns out, the piece is quite logical, orbiting around ii – V – I progressions that are based on well-established jazz chord substitutions. Even so, the harmony is astonishing. As guitarist John Schott rightly points out, “Until the eight cadential measures in Eb that round out the form, no key center is definitively established.”

In place of that reliable key center lies a rapidly shifting series of tonicizations. And that is what gives “Moment’s Notice” its dizzying, “random” feel.  But underneath it all rests a surprising constant. A careful look at the harmony reveals a piece that sounds at almost every turn as if it’s headed for the key of C, then veers off in a different direction. In essence, the harmonic push toward C is like a comedian’s straight line that sets up the punch line (in this case, the unexpected new key).  Understanding the piece’s relationship to C makes it easier to understand, learn and improvise over, and offers fresh perspectives to listeners, as well.

Before we begin, let’s literally get on the same page. All references to “Moment’s Notice” in this article are to the version in The Real Book, Sixth Edition, published by the Hal Leonard Corporation. The analysis begins at rehearsal letter B (letter A is the introduction).

Let’s start at the very beginning of the head, that is, at letter B. Why does a piece that’s nominally written in E♭ begin with an E-7 chord? It’s because it actually starts in the key of C.

The opening progression, Em7 – A7 – Fmi7 – B♭7, can be expressed as iii – vi – ii – V, with C as the tonic. The ii – V is not a literal ii – V, which would be D-7 – G7. Instead, it takes place a minor third above. It’s a stock substitution – one that most jazz musicians are familiar with. (In an article called “Coletrane’s Substitution Tunes,” jazz pianist and author Jason Lyon calls it an “embellishing cadence,” and jazz pianist and educator Frank Sumares likes to refer to it as “the old minor-third trick.”)

Guitarist Schott, for his part, describes Coltrane’s strategy as an element of chromaticism. In an article titled “We Are Revealing a Hand That Will Later Reveal Us,” he notes that the half-step relationship of E-7 and F-7 “achieves a higher degree of chromatic saturation than a more conventional progression, such as iii – vi – II – V, which also fits the melody, would have guaranteed.” Indeed, chromaticism is at the core of “the old minor-third trick.” Schott is also absolutely correct when he asserts that the melody would go well over a standard iii – vi – ii – V (E-7 – A7 – D-7 – G7).  Its compatibility with that cadence, in fact, is part of what makes it point toward C.

However the passage may be viewed, it is indeed all set to resolve to the key of C from B♭7 (the subtonic of C). Try it, and hear how easily it could happen.

What does happen, though, is something substantially different. Instead of heading for C, Coltrane uses the F-7 – Bb7 as a pivot to land on E♭MA7, a fifth away from B♭. He then goes to E♭’s minor fourth – A♭-7 – and on to D♭7, establishing another ii – V progression. Here again, he’s potentially headed for C, with the A♭-7 – D♭7 functioning as a tritone substitution for D7 – G7. Here’s how it would sound it if actually landed on C.

But instead, Coltrane pulls up short and gives us D-7 – G7, which is the ii – V of C and another common substitution. He uses the D-7 – G7 to start the same harmonic pattern as at the beginning, only transposed a whole step down and landing on D♭MA7. From there, Coltrane gently lifts back to D-7 – G7, and once more appears headed for C. Here’s what it would sound like if Coltrane had opted to resolve in C.

This time, however, Coltrane goes to C-7, using it both as a momentary tonic and also another pivot chord – the iii of Ab. That starts us on a further iii – vi – ii – V – I, as follows: C-7 – (F7 – implied) – B♭-7 – E♭7 – A♭. The trip to A♭ lasts for exactly two beats before Coltrane slips to A♭-7 and then heads for D♭7 – the subtonic of E♭. It’s the same type of minor-third substitution we’ve seen before, this time for F-7 – B♭7. As before, however, the very brief resolution is to a iii chord (G-7, the third in Eb).

Here, Coltrane appears ready to set up a conventional iii – vi – ii – V – I progression to E♭, which he in fact does at the second ending. This time, though, he again gives us the minor-third substitution, which by now has become a familiar harmonic building block. The result is a ii – V progression from A♭-7 to D♭7. Again, it could easily be destined for C, like this:

Once more, however, Coltrane opts for a new key, ending the first chorus in Gb (the tritone of C). On the turnaround, he appears bound for E♭ when he drops down to a ii – V composed of F-7 and B♭7. But, once again, it’s that same old minor-third substitution, leading us back to C. (The next chord is actually C’s iii chord, E-7, which is a common substitution for the I chord and also begins the head again.)

The second time around, Coltrane actually does go to E♭.  He completes the tune with a lengthy B♭7 pedal (dominant fifth) before finally coming to rest on E♭ as the final note. Whew! The musicians and the audience have made it through the dizzying succession of key changes that define one of bebop’s signature pieces.

Throughout the tune, C has lurked in the shadows, but never stepped into the light. Its presence, however, is felt everywhere, through the constant expectation that it will imminently appear. That supposition, in fact, is a primary element that makes the various ii-V-I destinations so surprising.

The piece’s relationship to C has useful ramifications for performers and listeners alike. Both can use C as a reference point – a mental anchor – throughout the piece. It’s a way to organize the tune’s fast-changing chord progressions and understand them as a carefully crafted series of substitutions and pivots. In this way, the piece becomes much easier to comprehend, master and hear.

Recorded in 1957 on the album, Blue Train, “Moment’s Notice” stands more than 50 years later as one of the masterworks of a harmonic genius. As much as his “wall of sound” and incredible dexterity as an improviser, it’s his advances in harmony that have secured Coltrane his place in the jazz pantheon. It’s fitting that a half-century after its release, “Moment’s Notice” is still yielding fresh insights into the mind of its tradition-breaking creator.

Scott Dailey is a jazz pianist, writer, and public-school music teacher in Northern California. He holds a degree in English from Stanford University and degrees in music composition and music education from San Jose State University.

Copyright © 2012 by Scott Dailey. All rights reserved.

Works Cited 2009.

Coltrane, John. 1957. “Moment’s Notice.” In The Real Book, sixth edition. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard. Also on Blue Train, track 2. 1957. New York: Blue Note Records.

Lyon, Jason. 2007. “Coltrane’s Substitution Tunes.” tranesubtunes.pdf.

Schott, John. 2000. “We Are Revealing a Hand That Will Later Reveal Us.” In Arcana: Musicians on Music, ed. John Zorn, 345-366. New York: Granary Books / Hips Road.

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