Jaga Jazzist - 'Airborne'

track 4 from the album ‘A Livingroom Hush’ (2001)

Even for those solidly familiar with basic music theory, jazz can be an intimidating beast. In many cases, even ‘standard’ jazz chord progressions fail to obey most traditional theory guidelines, depending instead on unusual chord extensions, flexible chord substitutions, and frequent modulations based around modal thinking. This makes harmonic analysis of jazz exponentially more difficult than even the most challenging rock music. Furthermore, it could be argued that in jazz, the chord progression isn’t the primary driver of harmonic direction. Rather, by providing an ambiguous harmonic framework, jazz chord progressions allow musicians to extemporaneously highlight particular harmonic elements (especially through melody) as they deem appropriate. This further complicates things -- an exhaustive analysis of a typical jazz piece cannot benefit from the repetition that exists in the context of a well-defined song structures present in other musical genres. The only alternative is a line-by-line deconstruction of all the improvisation the piece contains, a task likely too convoluted to be fruitful.

However, some bands have approached jazz from a direction which lends it more structure and materiality. Jaga Jazzist is one of those bands. Their distinctive style blends a wide swath of jazz subgenres with downtempo electronic music, and more recently, post-rock and space rock. Their early works could comfortably wear ‘jazz’ as a primary label, but have enough internal self-similarity to make harmonic analysis a more enticing notion.

The song ‘Airborne’ from their second album is a prime example of a song which balances the complexity of jazz with the accessible structure of rock or electronic music. While the A-section’s chord progression is not at all straightforward, it is concise, consisting of only a four-chord motif, repeated at length. This feature ruminates under a stately lead saxophone melody, allowing subtle developments in the song’s moody atmosphere provide the dynamic push. In general, the song largely eschews improvisation (with the exception a brief solo in the B-section), which makes a deeper analysis comparatively easy to achieve.

This balance between complexity and repetition is tangible from the song’s intro section (0:00). It begins with some swingy jazz percussion, highlighting the song’s 6/8 meter. However, the drum part is actually a heavily filtered looped recording, and this repetition slips it into more of a ‘background role’. The rhythmic content in this section is also accentuated by some electronic sound effects -- small scratchy hits which imitate the sound of a skipping CD. These are sparse and uneven, and favor the swung upbeats as well, making their connection to the core rhythm a little tenuous.

A harmonic aspect is gradually introduced to this section as well. A subdued bass primarily highlights the root note of Bb, occasionally filling in a couple of melodic notes which intimate a minor key. This is expanded upon by a very slow-paced key part, which highlights the chords below:

The voicings of these chords are fairly minimal, and along with the rounded, bell-like quality of the electric piano they are played on, they don’t come across as intrusively dissonant. However, they do reflect an unusual chord scheme, hinting at the complexity yet to come in the song’s main A-section chord progression. This is further alluded to in the transitional key solo -- a chromatic walk down back to the root note.

Finally, the song enters the A-section proper (0:33), and where the chord progression is depicted in its complete form, as illustrated below:

This is a highly unusual chord progression by traditional standards, as there are no circle of fifths or relative chord motions. Looking at the basic chord functions doesn’t reveal much, and ultimately, melody will play a more important role in how to make sense of this chord scheme. Still, there are a few immediately visible details that help strengthen the sound of this chord progression.

The first of these is the downward chromatic motion of the root notes, ending on Bb as the section’s first chord. These semitonal motions are particularly strong sounding since they consist of the twelve tone equal temperament’s most fundamental interval, and indeed this type of motion can be found in many different genres and harmonic contexts (Led Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’, The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’, etc. come to mind).

Additionally, there are many parallel chords and motions tied up in this chord progression. The | i - iii | change is functionally unusual, but the minor sixth voicing shared by these chords lends a degree of pleasant familiarity when moving between them. Furthermore, the Dbm6 could be rearranged into a Bbm7b5, so from another perspective this chord change is more a change in the tonic chord’s character (bass note notwithstanding). Separately, since the Bb is a compatible note in the context of the Cb9, this chord could be seen as roughly equivalent to an Ebm7b6, which plays the role of a iv. This would make the penultimate change a | ii - iv |, mirroring the same minor third root note jump in the first chord change.

Finally, the lack of strong resolution in this chord progression introduces a lot of harmonic ambiguity; enough so that we need not necessarily think of the Bbm6 as the i. In jazz, the minor sixth chord is a common voicing of the tonic in natural minor chord progressions, but strictly speaking, the natural sixth degree in this chord implies the dorian scale instead of a natural minor scale. As a result, we could also look at the Bbm6 as playing the role of ii, in what would then be an Ab major scale (or it could be a iv in an F natural minor scale). In fact, the Bbm6 is a common partial chord voicing for the Eb7add9 that would be present in this context. This produces a few alternate chord functions associated with this chord progression, as illustrated.

This reveals a little more about the song’s sound. In Ab major, the initial | ii - iv | change is reminiscent of a | ii - IV | that instead uses an altered (minor) subdominant. Generally, this could easily lead to a | iv - I | change, and indeed the I and iii are close relatives -- as a result, the | iv - iii | has a lot of that change’s tension and release, but its arrival in a minor chord gives it a more somber feel. Also, in F minor, the Vb is a fairly uncommon chord, but its movement to the iv gives a slight indication of its role as a blue note. Note that none of these interpretations are vital to understanding this chord scheme, but rather serve as examples of how nuances can be conjured out of such an ambiguous chord progression. Ultimately, a melody is well-suited to highlight the meaningful aspects of this chord scheme.

After one repetition, the saxophone provides this melody, beginning with a soft, breathy character that matches the patient, mysterious mood of the song (0:48). There is no improvisation here; instead, the repetition of the A-section is leveraged to find some unexpected intersections between its unconventional chord scheme and a highly patterned 16-bar melody, which is notated below:

One of the most surprising parts of this melody is that manages to stay largely within either Bb natural minor or Bb dorian, with the exception of a few brief passing tones (especially in measures 13-14, where this feature is accentuated by a syncopated, gestural melodic shape). This illustrates how, strangely enough, the overall chord progression can be strongly interpreted as being contingent upon a single root key -- there clearly need to be some modulations, but they can be seen more as small, temporary diversions instead of drastic scale changes.

It may seem pointlessly contrarian to match such a florid chord progression with a melody which adheres to a single key, but the way melodic devices are repeated adds a lot of depth -- with each repetition they are recontextualized, expounding by proxy upon the content of the chords’ modulations. Below, I have highlighted where these devices occur within the melody. They include: 1) upward movement by fourths (highlighted red), 2) downward movement emphasizing a semitone (highlighted green), and 3) trills containing unconventional notes (highlighted blue).

A piecewise analysis of this song’s lead melody shows a lot about its harmonic content, especially regarding how certain semitone intervals are highlighted. The first one (1), in particular, ardently establishes a dorian scale instead of a standard natural minor scale. This G♮ sounds particularly strong here, as the natural minor’s Gb would imply a Bbmb6, a chord which finds a stronger root note as a Gbmaj7. The semitone motion to the G, especially preceded by the series of fourths (1), also lends further credence to the implied presence of an Eb7add9 during this chord.

After ascending again to the C by another upward fourth (2), the chord modulates to the Dbm6. This sets up the expectation that the C will resolve (perhaps upward to the compatible Db). Instead, the melody note is held out, and in a trill (1), also visits the Bb. These two notes are native to the Bb dorian scale, but against a Dbm6, they imply an uneasy Db melodic minor scale (1 2 3b 4 5 6 7), or perhaps an even stranger Db melodic minor lydian scale (1 2 3b 4# 5 6 7). In fact, the latter (containing a G♮) differs from the Bb dorian by only a single note, and this sense of persistence further justifies the unusual | i - iii | change.

The next prominent semitone interval (2) occurs against the context of the Cm7. It leads from an Ab, a minor sixth degree which underscores a rounded, sad character that was absent from the initial Bbm6. And, by landing on the chord’s harmonically stable perfect fifth, this semitone supports the persistence of the G♮ in the overall chord scheme. The notes in this semitone interval are separated, however, by an upward whole tone motion, a phrasing that occurs elsewhere in the melody as well.

The upward fourth movement from before is repeated (3), and this time, the anticipated resolution to Db transpires, as part of a trill (2) that also includes the C♮. These notes are native to the Bb dorian scale, as expected; however, they play a new role against the Cb9. The Db, as a major second, isn’t especially strong or weak, but the C♮ clashes markedly. This conflict is tempered by its melodic characterization as a passing tone, and the acceptability of this note is perhaps strengthened even more by the flexible nature of what is essentially a Cb lydian scale (weirdly, the tonic of a lydian scale is its weakest note, and can occasionally be augmented without causing a catastrophic amount of tension).

The next highlighted semitone (3) comfortably falls back into the Bb minor mindset, landing on the major second scale degree -- again, not especially strong or weak, but parallels the way the Cb9’s major second scale degree (Db) was previously featured.

Next, there are two series of upward fourth movements which mirror the structure of the original one (1). The first one (4) begins a whole tone lower, thus including a Gb that delineates a Bb natural minor scale, which is closer to the prior Cb lydian scale. The second one (5) is actually the same as the original (1), and likewise ends up back on the G♮. This note is reached by another semitone-highlighting phrase (4) which mimics the one played over the original Cm7 (2). However, this time it coincides with the Dbm6, so the G♮ produces some additional tritonal tension associated with the aforementioned Db melodic minor lydian scale.

This tension resolves as the song once again returns to Cm7. A brief trill (3) brings some tension back, though, by including a B♮ -- this conflicts with the Bb dorian scale, but is justified by the implication of a C harmonic minor scale, and (as with the previous trill) by the note’s brief passing tone character. This scale also includes a D♮, which becomes the focus of the subsequent conspicuous semitone (5). This is perhaps the greatest departure from the Bb dorian (D♮ being the major third of a Bb scale), though this phrase eventually lands on the more familiar G♮.

The last phrase (6) highlights another downward semitonal movement, this time starting on the Gb. This departs from the Bb dorian scale, but the Bb natural minor scale is a good compromise -- the semitone movement highlights the F, and thus re-establishes the Cb lydian scale against the Cb9.

By now, the pattern of how these downward semitones are used should be pretty clear. They accentuate notes which are more major or augmented than expected, with respect to the context of either the previous or current chord, as outlined below:

(1): Ab to G♮ - major sixth of Bbm

(2): Ab to G♮ - augmented fourth of previous Dbm (perfect fifth of Cm)

(3): Db to C♮ - augmented tonic of previous Cb (major second of Bbm)

(4): Ab to G♮ - augmented fourth of Dbm

(5): Eb to D♮ - major third of previous Bbm (major second of Cm)

(6): Gb to F♮ - augmented fourth of Cb

This recurrent use of major or augmented scale degrees forms an uplifting contrast with a chord progression which is based on minor chords and knotty, chromatic descending root notes. Overall, it prevents the song from being suffocatingly minor, and instead adds a cool sense of intrigue. Additionally, the frequency with which downward movements occur by semitones contrasts with the upward movements which occur mostly by leaping fourths, giving the sense of shooting upwards and floating gently downwards. Together, these features establish an aesthetic that the song’s title -- ‘Airborne’ -- helps describe.

After the first repetition of this A-section, the melody is repeated again (1:17), while a soft, atmospheric synth gradually enters. A third repetition occurs (1:46), and this time the saxophone melody is an octave higher. While further contributing to the altitudinous theme of the song, this also shows how the song’s dynamics are tied largely to timbre and sound layering instead of constantly evolving composition. This repetition also includes the addition of a wind section filling out the chord scheme, along with a few more subtle synth noises.

The saxophone melody drops back to its original octave around measures 10-11, though the figures in this section (4 and 5) compensate with their strong feeling of ascension. Finally, all the instruments cease playing, the drums slowly fading into silence, leaving only the momentary whir of synth noise before the song plummets into its significantly more energetic B-section (2:17).

There are several key differences in the B-section which substantiate an overall change in mood, not least of which is its change in time signature to 7/8. Additionally, though the tempo remains the same, the swung rhythmic feel is abandoned in favor of a more compelling straight-eighth note feel. This even rhythm highlights the abbreviated quality of 7/8 in relation to 4/4, giving an additional sense of urgency to this section. The electronic percussion which first cues this change in meter leverages these rhythmic features with some glitchy-sounding whirs and clicks.

The other major change in this section is the chord progression, as illustrated below

As with the A-section, this chord scheme is repeated at length with virtually no changes. However, unlike the A-section, the changes here are simpler and perhaps more understandable in terms of conventional music theory. Looking only at the basic triads, the chord scheme begins in the Bb phrygian key, with the initial | i - IIb | being a simple stepwise change. The subsequent | IIb - V | requires a key change to the Bb harmonic minor, but the overlap in the third and fifth between the IIb and ii b5 give this chord substitution a similarity to the conventional | ii b5 - V | change. The final | V - i | is also very conventional within Bb harmonic minor, and the more familiar quality of these changes (especially the final resolution) provides additional potency to this section’s mood change. The second half of the chord scheme is similar, but even more simple, with the IIb returning directly to the i.

Nonetheless, the full depth of the chord progression’s value only becomes apparent as the instrumentation gradually builds up. The first indication of this section’s harmonic content is the lone saxophone part, as notated below:

At first, this melody aligns with the Bb natural minor scale, in keeping with the trend established by the A-section’s saxophone melody. However, ‘Cb - Bb - A’ walk-down in the first repetition of the chord scheme highlight the prominent key deviations in this section -- the Cb striking along with Cb9, and the A♮ accentuating the bold dominant character of the F7. Furthermore, this walk-down imitates the descending chromatic character that is so pronounced in the A-section. Ultimately, the second repetition of the chord scheme aligns with the chord progression and obviates these tensions in favor of a phrase which sticks more strictly to the original Bb natural minor context.

Next, a stand-up bass part begins (2:35), as notated below:

The harmonic content of this part roughly follows the outline established by the saxophone, but adds an extra degree of rhythmic diversity, interlocking cleverly with aspects of the saxophone’s rhythm. This interplay is especially noticeable within the straight-eighth note framework of the B-section. This rhythm is further bolstered by the addition of an acoustic percussion part (2:52), though it sticks largely to a somewhat subdued combination of tambourine and rimshot hits, thus only incrementally building this section’s sonic intensity.

A quiet key part is added there as well, though it plays an important role in fully voicing the chord progression. In particular, it notably plays the tonic as a Bbm6, whose major sixth chord degree deviates from the assumed Bb natural minor scale (and initial Bb phrygian chord change). While it may seem difficult to squeeze another key change into this chord scheme, this introduces tritonal tension that helps maintain an air of mystery, while also paradoxically strengthening the change to the conspicuously non-standard IIb by allowing it to collapse this tension -- the Bbm6’s Db/G dyad converts to a clean-sounding Db/Gb inside the Cb9. Also, using this voicing implies another chromatic walk-down through the chords in the form of ‘G - Gb - F’ that once again hearkens to the A-section.

Finally, a lead melody is added (3:09), voiced by a flute and trumpet playing in unison (the transition to this melody is a brief effects-laden trumpet playing an A♮, in order to give a weirdly textural element of tension). The melody’s first repetition mixes the trumpet rather quietly, letting the flute serve as the main timbral component, but the second repetition (3:26) elevates a bold, brassy character by adding another trumpet playing an octave above. The overall melody is notated below:

The melody’s harmonic content is actually rather simple, resting completely in Bb natural minor, and cannily avoiding any of the scale changes which occur in the chords beneath it. More impressive though, is its rhythmic aspect, which comes from how it meshes with the jaunty 7/8 meter -- by alternating between a variety of quick, syncopated phrases and sustained individual notes. This enables clever interaction with the percussion without forcing it to relinquish command of the rhythmic context. The use and reuse of rhythmic phrases in each half of the melody further strengthens this concept.

Over the course of the B-section, layers have been built up gradually, but in order to provide a memorable climax to the song, a saxophone improvisation (3:41) cues a radical boost in intensity. The transition is marked by a replacement of the final two 7/8 measures with a single measure of 4/4. This unexpected abbreviation gives the new subsection an abruptly punchy quality.

Surprisingly, much of the content of the saxophone’s improvisation is based around feel instead of technicality. It utilizes a number of extended techniques, including timbre manipulation (i.e. screaming or growling), pitch bending, and ample vibrato, which are showcased appropriately with several sustained notes (a few of which notably begin this subsection). Like the melody from earlier in the B-section, these are alternated with moments of rapid, articulate melodic phrasing, though performed in a more freewheeling, energetic fashion. On a couple of occasions, these flourishes revert to being ‘feel-oriented’ as well, purposefully spilling out of tempo and sliding sloppily among pitches. On the whole, the improvisation has a messy, animalistic quality which pushes the building energy of the B-section to its apex.

The underlying instrumentation adds to this energy as well -- finally, a full drum kit holds down the distinctive rhythm, and the bass part is intensified (perhaps overdubbed) to give it more presence. The trumpets, on the other hand, fall back and provide a complementary role to the saxophone, filling in during its sustained notes. These fill-ins consist of brief parts ranging from staccato jabs to quick, syncopated melodic runs. Occasionally, the trumpets even hold some notes out for a few moments, forming chords that reiterate the harmonic content of this section as necessary.

After 24 bars, the final Bbm6 chord cues the end of the B-section (4:31). The final drum and bass notes fade out, along with a wash of synthesizers which prompt a brief return to the A-section. As the notes of that final chord still ring out, the saxophone begins its demure, slow-paced melody, and on the second chord of the A-section, it is rejoined by the electric piano and nothing more. This outro serves as a reprieve from the intensity of the B-section, and appropriately has minimal instrumentation. Rather, it revives the cool, secretive vibe from the beginning of the song, with more complex chords which reign in the momentum of the previous improvisational subsection.

Overall, ‘Airborne’ has a simple overarching structure that permits a more careful dissection of the jazz chord progression it employs. And, by cleverly fusing near-constant modulations with a straightforward, thematically-consistent melody, it imbues an otherwise highly accessible song with the mood and complexity of jazz. Ultimately, this gives a deeper purpose to the song’s harmonic content, as it informs myriad textural elements which are vital to the song’s dynamics.