THE MAJOR SEVENTH FLAT FIVE CHORD aka Maj7(b5)
I first encountered the Maj7(b5) chord when I started playing with the great Sonny Simmons, in the early '90s. Sonny would routinely start every one of our sets by saying: "OK, let's tune up: Bb major seventh flat five!".
Since I was usually the only chords instrument in the group, what he wanted me to do was sound the chord, and we would vamp on it for a few minutes so that the rest of the band could tune up to it.
So the first time I heard Sonny call out that chord (and put me on the spot, kind of...) I naively thought: "Wow, he must mean Lydian...". Even though I was actually wrong (see below) I still managed to find voicings that had the required notes. Simply put, all it meant was grab any kind of basic Bb Major seventh chord, and just lower the fifth.
See, being fresh out of school at the time, I believed that I had to think of a mode-- and therefore, Lydian was the first one that came to my mind. But luckily, I don't think I embarrassed myself too much with that, since I essentially strummed chords during our "tuning jams". However, I quickly understood that even if I was thinking of modal voicings, I had to stay away from those perfect fifths!
I need to make a clear distinction here: you see, the Maj7(b5) is not considered the same as the Maj7(#11).
Maj7(#11) implies that the chord contains a perfect 5th (P5). The #11 is just an extension, a color. It is added to the chord and is not a chord tone per se.
CMaj7(#11) = C E G B F#
On the other hand, Maj7(b5) clearly states that the 5th of the chord is flatted. It is a diminished 5th (°5) and it now is a chord tone.
CMaj7(b5) = C E Gb B
So, even though both chords somehow includes some of the same pitches, they are not the same at all.
The Maj7(b5) chord is quite a fascinating chord. It is not considered a diatonic chord, even if one could find its notes enharmonically hidden in a couple of scales-- Lydian being one of them...
The first thing to do to acquaint ourselves with that beautiful chord would be to figure out its basic fingerings.
A practical approach is to look at our usual Maj7 voicings, and simply lower the fifth.
But here is where it starts getting interesting...
What we are going to look at now are some of the ways we can use the Maj7(b5) as a substitution, or as an upperstructure for various chords.
I will use Bbmaj7(b5) for the examples below:
Bb D E A
(Note that theoretically, E is actually Fb here, since it is a flatted 5th. I'm just using E in this example for the sake of simplicity).
We may then use Bbmaj7(b5)
1. from the m3 of a Gm6.
The resulting sound will be Gm6/9
2. from the m7 of a C7
The resulting sound will be: C7(9 13)
3. from the M3 of an F#7
The resulting sound will be: F#+7(#9)
4. from the b5 of an Em7(b5)
The resulting sound will be: Em7(b5)(11)
5. from the b9 of an A PHRY (modal chord)
The resulting sound will be: Asus (b9)
As usual, those substitutions may be applied as block chords (while accompanying) or as arpeggios (while soloing).
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