UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Referential sets, referential tonics, and the analysis of contemporary jazz Cook, Scott Alexander


While jazz has become more integrated into academia, the repertoire that is commonly examined is out of date. Today's leading jazz scholars tend to focus on a handful of musicians who made their mark in the '50s and '60s. But jazz writing has continued to evolve in the last fifty years, particularly in regards to harmony. Though many rooted chords—including MM7, mm7, and Mm7—can be heard in succession, the relationships between adjacent chords are obscure, and rarely manifest the standard II–V–I progression found in classic jazz. Often, successive chords belong to different diatonic sets. Some composers have eliminated chord symbols from their lead sheets altogether, leaving harmonic interpretation and relationships even more open-ended. Since the inception of modal jazz in the late '50s, priority has been given to groups of notes and the ways that they can interact, as opposed to specific chords, keys, and function. This presents a challenge not only for harmonic analysis but also for improvising on these changes in performance. Nevertheless, pitch-class organization can often be heard to promote a hierarchical ranking amongst the chords, resulting in strong points of reference. This dissertation develops and applies a theory of referential sets, for analyzing and improvising over representative examples of chromatic chord successions found in some contemporary jazz. By treating pitch-classes outside the collection as alterations, this theory provides a way to hear successions of seemingly unrelated chords as derived from such collections, which are in turn supported by global referential tonics. This is analogous to traditional, hierarchical ways of hearing secondary dominants and other chromaticism, but with different restrictions on the types of alterations allowed. It therefore describes more variegated progressions, and also allows referential sets to be different and larger than diatonic sets, while still providing the traditional benefits of harmonic analysis, such as the identification of continuities, recurring patterns of root successions, cadences, and other formal processes and relations that remain paramount in much of today's jazz writing.

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