The ‘B form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I: chord voicing, scale outline and a related melodic pattern

ii-v-i-major-b-formThe melodic pattern in step 3 of this sheet can also be contrapuntally combined with the melodic pattern in the post on ‘A form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I progression.  The Sonny Rollins pattern shown here is only one of many possible examples of melodic patterns that can be associated with and practiced with the ‘B form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I; another possible pattern is mentioned at the bottom of the sheet.

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The ‘A form’ voicing of the major ii-V-I: chord voicing, scale outline, and a related melodic pattern

The melodic pattern shown in the third section of the sheet below is only one example of many patterns related to the ‘A form’ voicing of the ii-V-I progression.  When I practice a lick through all twelve keys, I find it valuable to associate it with a chord voicing.  Although certain licks, like Clifford Brown’s below, can be logically associated with chord voicings, associating a lick and a chord voicing is also a subjective, creative process.  Although some jazz educators warn against practicing licks, I think that taking a lick through all twelve keys is a valuable exercise, whether or not the lick becomes consciously or unconsciously integrated into your melodic vocabulary.  maj-ii-v-i-a-form

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‘Now What?’: a modal melody collage

My improvisation class at UVM begins by studying tunes and chord progressions that were common in the swing and bebop eras, including the blues (in the form of the Charlie Parker tune ‘Billie’s Bounce’), ‘Stompin at the Savoy’ and rhythm changes (i.e. the changes from George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’).  It then takes a sudden turn toward modal jazz with Miles Davis‘ ‘So What’, a tune that uses the same 32-bar AABA form as ‘I Got Rhythm‘, but reduces its constant harmonic motion to just two chords, D minor seventh and E flat minor seventh.  The melody, with its one-bar bass phrases answered by a chordal phrase that uses the same rhythmic pattern as Bobby Timmons’ ‘Moanin’, lays out the D dorian and E flat dorian scales.  These scales can be created by flatting the third and seventh degrees in the D and E flat major scales.  (The tune seems to have been conceived at least partly on piano, as D dorian uses only white keys and E flat dorian uses only black keys.)  We initially learn to improvise over So What through learning an outline of the progression based on one scalar lick and two arpeggio licks.  (Note: The recording to which the link takes you has a three-beat countoff: beats 2, 3 and 4 played on the hi-hat of the drum kit.)

While having fewer harmonic goals can seem to make the improviser’s task easier, anyone who has tried to solo on ‘So What’ knows that having fewer harmonic landmarks can make it more challenging to maintain the AABA form on this tune (in other words, more challenging to remember where the second chord change arrives.)
One technique that a number of improvisers have used on this type of tune is to quote 4-bar melodic phrases from pop songs, folk songs, other solos, etc. as a way of building their solo.  This kind of quoting can be heard in Cannonball Adderley’s solo on the Miles Davis tune ‘Miles’ (often mislabeled ‘Milestones’ and confused with the John Lewis tune of that name recorded by Miles and Charlie Parker), Clark Terry’s solo on Bob Brookmeyer’s ‘Hum’, and more recently, Tadataka Onno’s solo on vocalist Gabrielle Stravelli’s ‘So What Boy,’ (from her album ‘Waiting In Vain’, available on iTunes), a truly swingin’ vocal tune based on an altered version of the ‘So What’ progression.  In a number of these solos, the soloists quote tunes that originally appeared in different harmonic contexts: Adderley quotes ‘I Can’t Get Started‘, a major-key tune, as well as a phrase from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ over the A minor 7th chord in ‘Milestones’ and Unno quotes ‘Rain Check’ and ‘I Found A New Baby’ over the D minor 7th chord in ‘So What Boy‘.  (This reminds me of something that one of my jazz education mentors, Alex Stewart, mentioned to me: that he likes to play the dorian mode off the 5th of dominant 7th chords and the seventh scale (i.e. the mixolydian) off the 11th of minor 7th chords.) Gershwin’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm‘ is also quoted in (I believe) all three solos; the tune’s first phrase is used prominently and almost in its entirety by Adderley and Terry, Unno, by contrast, only hints at the second phrase.  Finally, to my ear Terry and Unno both quote Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ solo.

While I wouldn’t advise a developing improviser to consciously plan to quote tunes in a solo, I think that composing solos that make deliberate use of borrowed melodic material can be a useful exercise for modeling the process of altering and fusing short patterns that occurs at a subconscious level in ‘real-time’ improvising.   The title of my tune ‘Now What?’ is a condensation of a question students might well ask when ‘So What’ is introduced in my class: ‘so far we’ve learned a bunch of tunes and melodic ideas based on major and dominant 7th chords, and suddenly we’re supposed to improvise on a couple of long minor 7th chords – now what do we play on that??‘   I composed the tune to demonstrate to my class how, in addition to using the dorian scale to improvise on the ‘So What’ progression, one can also use melodic ideas originally based in other modes and harmonic contexts.

Using other scales that use the same group of notes as the dorian scale can be an effective strategy, as it was in the Adderley, Terry and Unno solos.  When improvising over a minor seventh chord in the context of the dorian mode, one can use ideas based in the major scale starting on seventh of the chord (the tune starts with quotes from Louis Armstrong’s solo on ‘Hotter Than That’ and Ella Fitzgerald’s solo on ‘Cottontail’.)  One can also, to use Alex Stewart’s concept, use ideas based in the seventh scale starting on the 11th of the chord (as in the quote from John Coltrane’s solo on ‘So What’).  The tune continues with another Ella quote from the same ‘Cottontail’ solo and some patterns based on the one-bar ii-V progressions (these can be found in the ‘Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris’ post) which outline various inversions of the minor 7th chord.  The tune goes on to use the 5-4-3-2 licks that we study in my class (these are explained in my post on Anthropology), which can be thought of as based on the major scale but can be applied in a wide variety of contexts, and ends up with some four-bar ii-V-I patterns from Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker which also work over the extended minor seventh harmony of the ‘So What’ progression.

I hope you enjoy working on this tune; my solo piano recording of it can be heard by clicking here.  (Although in this solo piano version I do it as a fast samba, keep in mind the tune can also be played or sung slower and with swing eighth notes.)  I encourage you to learn the scale/arpeggio outline first, as it shows the context on which ‘Now What’ builds.  I hope that by either listening to or working on the tune, you might also get interested in further investigating the solos that ‘Now What’ borrows from, composing your own line on the ‘So What’ progression, or most important of all, doing your own improvising on this

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Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Part 1: the seventh scale, the circle of fifths, melodic patterns from rootless dominant 7th voicings (featuring ‘October Blues’)

An essential skill for all improvisers is being able to play the seventh scale (Barry Harris’ term for the major scale with a flatted seventh) through all twelve keys with steady tempo and a sense of swing.  There are many patterns one can use to move through all keys; one of the most basic is the ‘circle of fifths’ (i.e. a pattern of descending fifths and/or ascending fourths.)  Here is one way of practicing this sequence on the piano in a conversational style, with the left hand playing chordal ‘question’ phrases and the right hand answering with scales:



To help your ear make sense of the rootless guide-tone voicings in the left hand, try practicing the chords as written in the lower staff with your right and adding the roots in your left hand.

The 7-3-13 voicing of the dominant seventh chord can be heard the intro to the Benny Golson tune ‘Killer Joe’ (played by McCoy Tyner on the original recording) and the intro to ‘Hit That Jive Jack’ as played by Diana Krall on her recording of the tune (based on the Nat King Cole original.)  On both of these intros the four-note version of the chord is used, with a 9th added between the 7th and the 3rd.  The 3-7-9 voicing of the dominant seventh chord can be heard in the left hand of both Thelonious Monk’s intro to ‘Well You Needn’t’ on the version from the album Genius of Modern Music and Duke Ellington’s intro to ‘In A Mellow Tone’ on the version from the album The Blanton Webster Band.

The exercise below expands the three note voicings from the first exercise into four note voicings and guides you through practicing them in a number of ways: with left hand roots and right hand voicings, with rootless voicings doubled in both hands, and with one hand playing the rootless voicing while the other hand plays a pattern derived from it.  The pattern based on the 7-3-13 voicing is from Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind, and the pattern based on the 3-7-9 voicing is from the bop tune ‘Donna Lee’ (on which Charlie Parker is usually credited as the composer, although Miles Davis claims to have written it.)dominant-rootless-ex

My tune ‘October Blues’ uses both of these patterns over a bassline inspired by the 3/4 blues tunes ‘All Blues’ and a progression borrowed from the Lee Morgan tune ‘Calling Miss Khadija’.  It uses two more patterns based on rootless dominant voicings which can be found in my exercise ‘Jody, Donna, Ko-Ko and Four Brothers’ (and which come from the last two tunes referenced in my composite title, ‘Ko-ko’ by Charlie Parker and ‘Four Brothers’ by Jimmy Giuffre.)  This exercise can be found in Part 2 of this post.  The bassline is inspired by the Miles Davis tune ‘All Blues’, although unlike continuous bassline from that tune, here I combine a single note phrase with a rootless voicing in a four bar pattern that leaves room for a right-hand melodic answer.  You could begin your improvised solo by keeping the same left hand pattern and answering it with improvised fills in your right hand.  The scale outline below the tune illustrates one way of practicing seventh scales over a simpler left hand bassline to get your hands in shape to create a melodic conversation between a repetitive and spacious left hand and a more active, improvised right hand.   A recording of the tune can be heard here.  Also, I have posted a two-chorus bass-and-drum accompaniment recording with which you can practice playing through tune and the scale outline (or the tune and a chorus of solo) in steady time.


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Root systems, part 4 / Elijah’s Bounce

To conclude this series of posts on root position voicings of the major ii-V-I progression, here’s a tune I composed called ‘Elijah’s Bounce’.  I borrowed the chord progression from the Charlie Parker tune ‘My Little Suede Shoes.’  To outline the ‘short’ ii-V and ii-V-I progressions in this tune, I’ve used patterns based on root position voicings, including those discussed in Part 3 of this series.   As a introduction to the concept of rootless voicings, I’ve also included patterns based on rootless voicings built ‘off the 3rd’ and ‘off the 7th’ , including some of those shown in the ‘Midnight Donna and Reets In Paris’ exercise that appears in an earlier post.  I will be discussing the comping and melodic uses of rootless voicings in upcoming posts.    In the written left hand comping, each ii-V or ii-V-I lick in the right hand line is accompanied by a voicing that matches its shape.  My point here is not to imply that all right-hand melodic shapes should be based on left-hand voicings; this tune is just an example of how voicings can be one of many sources for melodic ideas.  ‘Melody outline voicings’ such as these can also horizontally condense a melodic line in a way that makes it easier to memorize.  (Disclaimer: any resemblance to the following tunes in the measures listed is purely accidental: Round Midnight (m. 1); Moody’s Mood for Love (m. 3); Boplicity (m. 5); Four Brothers (m. 6-7); Dancers in Love (m. 9); Peri’s Scope (m. 11); Donna Lee (m. 15); Afternoon in Paris (m. 21); Radioactivity (m. 25); 26-2 (m. 27).)      The left hand part of this tune also is an example of using upbeats in comping to accent upbeats in a melodic line, which helps maintain a sense of forward motion.  I have added suggested fingerings in some places.  I hope you enjoy playing this tune, which is named after a student of mine who shows up for his lessons with a wonderfully bouyant energy.  A recording of the tune can be heard here.

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Root systems, part 3: Give it up for the root (position pattern)s! – Melodic patterns based on root position voicings

The name of this post is a variation on the phrase, ‘Give it up for The Roots!’, that Jimmy Fallon often uses to introduce his house band on his late night show. (I made an appearance on the show in 2010 during my time playing keyboards in the Mike Gordon Band.) I was reminded of what an eclectic group The Roots are when, just after the revolutionary saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman’s death last year, they played a number of his tunes on the show. (It turns out they had performed with him as well.)

Once you have learned to play voicings of the major ii-V-I progression in all keys (as shown in Root systems, Part 1), and learned to outline ii V Is in all keys with scales (as shown in Root systems, Part 2), a possible next step is to learn a tune that includes a melodic pattern based on the root position voicing of the ii V I progression, and then learn that melodic pattern in all twelve keys.

For players who are newer to jazz, I would suggest learning Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ or Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’, both of which can be found in The Real Book Sixth Edition from Hal Leonard.   (There is an interesting video by Brazilian bassist Marcos Roberto de Santos that matches a transcribed score of the original version of ‘Peri’s Scope’ with MIDI tracks of the piano and drum parts and a live performance of the bass part.  As the piano part is notated in grand staff, it is helpful in understanding Evans’ style.  The history of recorded versions of ‘Round Midnight’ is, to me, a fascinating jazz mystery: in the two best-known recorded versions of ‘Round Midnight’, by Monk and Miles Davis, the chord progressions used match neither the other recording nor the most common published charts of the tune.)  Two other tunes that use root position melodic patterns are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ and Billy Taylor’s ‘Radioactivity’; scores of these pieces are somewhat harder to find. Finally, John Coltrane’s ’26-2’ uses a root position ii-V-I pattern in its bridge.  This tune, which involves his ‘Giant Steps’ changes interpolated into the form of Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation’,  is among the most challenging of Coltrane’s compositions.

To be ready to transpose a root-position-based pattern through all twelve keys, it is helpful to practice the root position voicing hands together through all twelve keys. The four-note voicing shown here includes a rootless voicing of V7, and is sequenced through two descending whole-step patterns (an alternative to the descending half-step pattern through which I sequenced ii-V-Is in the last post.) Once you have mastered these hands-together voicings, you’ll be ready to convert the voicing in the right hand into one of the patterns shown below (in other words, ‘give it up’ for the root position pattern.)Preview of “root position ii-V-I doubled”

With jazz improvisation, as with any language, it is always a potential hazard to focus too much on learning individual phrases without learning the grammar and vocabulary (or, in music, scales and arpeggios) that allow you to use phrases in context. While practicing hands-together chords as shown above is helpful before learning a root-position-based lick in all twelve keys, mastering the scale outlines of the major ii-V-I in the previous post is an absolutely crucial step.

One of my improvisation teachers, Yusef Lateef, said: ‘when you find something you like’ – meaning a melodic pattern – ‘learn it in all twelve keys.’   (‘Find something you like’ is an extremely important directive that, I think, can be challenging to follow in an age where music delivery systems which anticipate what a listener ‘might also like’ are increasingly common.)  I have sometimes extended this process by searching for examples in my ‘listening diet’ of how patterns I like are used and varied by different players. (In addition to live performances and my iTunes library, my listening diet also includes the internet station Calm Radio Jazz Piano, which plays both classic and rare recordings by great jazz pianists.) Finding a lick in multiple contexts can demonstrate how, in the jazz tradition, a lick is not an immutable object but a living thing that changes from one player to another or even from one bar to another (see the Charlie Rouse example below.)

At the end of this post are five different ii-V-I patterns which, to my mind, are based on root position voicings.  These five patterns boil down to three basic melodic shapes: the first two pairs of patterns are variations on the same basic lick, and the last pattern (from Billy Taylor’s tune ‘Radioactivity’) is a variation on a lick from a Charlie Parker solo.


  • The pattern from ‘Round Midnight’ is one of the main motives that Monk’s tune is based on; it occurs in two different transpositions during the first A section.   (In the version of the ‘Round Midnight’ pattern shown below, I have changed the first four notes from sixteenths to eighths, as the other patterns on the page are based in eighth notes.)  John Coltrane performed ‘Round Midnight’ between 1955 and ’57 in the Miles Davis Quintet and with Thelonious Monk, so it makes sense that one of the tune’s foundational five-note patterns shows up both at the beginning of his solo on Giant Steps (recorded in 1959) and that the bridge of ’26-2’ (from Coltrane’s Sound, recorded in 1960) contains an expansion of the pattern.
  • The pattern from m. 16-18 of the head to Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’ is played a number of different ways by Evans; the right hand melodic phrase shown below can be heard on the head out of the original version from Portrait In Jazz, and the left hand chording shown is based on the live 1972 version. Note that the pickup to the phrase, which in the context of the tune anticipates the min7 change, is accompanied by an anticipated chord in the left hand. It is important to be able to accompany melodic anticipation in a bop line with this kind of harmonic anticipation, as playing all the chords on downbeats will contradict the line’s rhythmic energy. The opening phrase from Ellington and Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ uses a six-note motive similar to the ‘Peri’s Scope’ phrase, but with a different rhythmic placement and a three-note chromatic run preceding it. The rhythm shown below for the left hand comping is Ellington’s original left hand rhythm, emphasizing the ‘and’ of one in both measures. A similar phrase is also used multiple times by Charlie Rouse in his tenor sax solo on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ugly Beauty’.  Like Thelonious Monk’s solo on Bags’ Groove (from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants) and Sonny Rollins’ solo on St. Thomas, Rouse’s solo is a model of ingeniously varied use of a single motive.
  • Finally, the phrase from Billy Taylor’s ‘Radioactivity’ is a variation and an extension of the lick Charlie Parker plays in double time at the end of his second chorus on ‘Billie’s Bounce’ (around 1:10 on the linked video).root position maj ii-V-I patterns


If you’d rather start from a more ‘cellular’ level, you could start by choosing one of these phrases, learning the tune from which it originates, and then practicing the lick from it in all twelve keys, using the series of ii-V-Is descending by half steps or another pattern (such as ii-V-Is descending by whole steps as shown above.)


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Root systems, part 2 / outlining the ii-V and ii-V-I progressions with 7-up scales

Once you have become familiar with playing ii-V-I progressions in all keys in at least one voicing using your list of six tunes from the first post in this series, a possible next step is to practice the 7th scale (also known as the mixolydian scale or the major scale with a flatted 7th) using the ‘7 up’ pattern over ii-V progression as shown in the exercise below. The 7 up pattern stops short of an octave and implies the sound of a seventh chord more effectively than a scale that concludes on the root.  (Like the tunes in the first ‘Root Systems’ post, all these scales should be learned with left-hand rootless voicings as well.  Rootless voicings will be addressed specifically in a future series of posts.)ii V half step with scales

I learned the concept of running the 7th scale from the V chord over both the ii and the V from the teaching of Barry Harris. While many jazz educators relate the ii chord to the dorian scale and the dominant V chord exclusively to the 7th scale (sometimes also called mixolydian), it is ultimately more helpful to the improviser to emphasize the relationship between the two chords by using the 7th scale built off the root of the V chord over both the ii and the V, rather than isolating each chord with a separate scale. Many players in the bebop and hard bop periods used ii-Vs descending by half steps in tunes such as Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues for Alice’, Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ and Miles Davis’ ‘Half Nelson’, as well reharmonizations such as the Mingus arrangement of ‘I Can’t Get Started’, and the substitutions on measures 3 and 4 of ‘Autumn Leaves’ used by Miles Davis and Wynton Kelly in their version of the tune. A number of modal ‘jam’ tunes, such as Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va, and Billy Cobham’s Red Baron, are built on using this pair of chords in a single key.)

When we add the I chord to each ii-V progression, it relates the ii and the V to the key from which they originate, and creates a three-chord progression that is one of the most common in jazz standard tunes. The major 7th chord can be outlined with the major scale starting on its root. When these three chords are outlined with these two scales we can see that each 7th scale uses the same group of notes as the major scale that follows it.ii-v-I root pos w 7th and major scales

You can use these chord-scale combinations to create outlines of tunes that are based around major ii-V and ii-V-I progressions, such as Billy Strayhorn’s Satin Doll, Miles Davis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson’s Tune Up, Sonny Rollins’ Pent Up House, Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird and John Coltrane’s Lazy Bird.  (All these tunes, with the exception of Pent-Up House, can be found in The Real Book 6th Edition published by Hal Leonard.) Note that all these tunes also use longer ii-V progressions, for example, with the ii and V chords lasting a measure each.  These longer progressions can be outlined by running each scale in two directions (either ‘7 up and down’ or ‘7 down and up’), as shown in this example with the ii-V-I progression in C:7 up and down maj ii V I

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Pairings, part three – Hand-some conversation: Two-handed melodic conversations by J.S. Bach and Oscar Peterson

This is the third post in the ‘pairings’ series. The two previous posts, on left hand walking bass with right hand melodic lines and left hand walking bass with right hand comping, each examine a particular technical challenge by comparing one or two pieces from the classical repertoire and one or two transcriptions of improvising or comping by great jazz players which involve that challenge. In this post I am pairing a well-known teaching piece by J.S. Bach with a lesser known teaching piece by Oscar Peterson, one of the few well-known mid-20th century jazz pianists to have written a collection of pieces aimed at the needs of developing pianists.  (Peterson’s book, ‘Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes and pieces’ is available as a book from Hal Leonard; a scan of an earlier edition, ‘Jazz for the Young Pianist’, is posted here.)  The Bach piece and the Peterson piece both challenge the player to develop equal facility in both hands with executing melodic passages.

Developing strength, agility and independence in one’s weaker hand is a challenge for pianists in all styles and at all levels. A 2009 article in Access Atlanta reports that an eye-opening number of great classical pianists and blues guitarists were left-handed.  A number of sources also cite jazz piano greats Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams as left-handed.  In the case of the pianists, this suggests that their success is an example of imagination and discipline triumphing over challenging circumstances, as the classical repertoire makes such great demands of the right hand.

Most pianists, by contrast, face the challenge of building strength, agility and independence in a left hand that is naturally weaker than their right. This is the challenge addressed by Bach’s ‘Little Prelude’ in C Major (BWV 939) and a jazz piece which has a number of features in common with it, Oscar Peterson’s Etude No. 6.     (Given Peterson’s own affinity for Bach, as demonstrated in his piece The Bach Suite, the resemblance may be more than coincidental.) Unlike the Hanon exercises, which seek to build strength in the weaker hand by having it play in unison with the dominant hand, and the Bach two part inventions, in which both hands often play the same figures but rarely do so in unison, these two pieces take a more incremental approach. Both pieces open with the right hand playing an opening phrase (a three-measure phrase in Bach and a two-measure phrase in Peterson) which is then answered by the left hand with minimal right-hand accompaniment (in Bach) or alone (in Peterson.)

In the Bach piece, this sets up a ‘conversation’ in which the right hand ‘speaks’ slightly more than the left, which has just two more measure-long melodic replies (m. 7 and 12) after its initial answer in m. 4-5; in m. 9-11 and 13-16, it takes up its more typical accompanying function. Although Bach does not give the hands equal melodic time, both hands are challenged in this piece to quickly alternate between two dynamic levels: a quieter level for accompanying passages, which requires the hands to stay closer to the keys (for right-handed players, this is the ‘default’ role for the left hand, but takes more work to develop in the right hand) and a stronger level for playing melody (which requires the player to have ‘higher’ fingers while still maintaining legato articulation where necessary.) There are a number of recordings of this piece online; although the one on the ‘Great Repertoire’ channel is rather stiffly played, it does include a valuable opportunity to follow the score while listening; the video by Dr. Alan Huckleberry of the University of Iowa features a more musical interpretation, as well as good examples of upper body posture, bench placement and rounded hand position.

In the Peterson piece, the right and left hands are given equal melodic time. Like many of the pieces in Peterson’s ‘Etudes and Pieces’ collection, Etude No. 6 follows a twelve-bar blues progression (in this case, in the key of E flat), and the right and left hands follow a pattern which jazz players call ‘trading twos’, breaking the progression into six phrases which are divided evenly between the hands. Although there are fewer accompanying passages in the Peterson piece than in Bach, the left hand is given some walking bass in m. 9-10. There are a number of odd, non-swinging recordings of Peterson’s etudes posted online, the performance in the link given above, by Italian pianist Giovanni Battista Gaetano, has a good sense of swing feel.  For an example of the ensemble context where the concept of trading originated, check out the classic tune ‘Blues Walk’. In their exchange at 5:28 in this tune, Clifford Brown and Harold Land demonstrate a number of the ways two improvisers can divide the twelve-bar blues progression between them, including ‘ones’, ‘twos’ and ‘fours’.

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Root systems, part 1 / Take three at a time: an approach to learning major scales and ii-V-I progressions in all keys along with tunes from The Real Book (Volume I, sixth edition)

This post is in response to questions often asked by my students.  ‘What tunes should I practice during my summer break from lessons?’, they ask. Or: ‘How can I get better at learning tunes from a fake book chart (i.e., just melody line with chord symbols above)?’ One way to begin working toward these goals is to expand your knowledge of major scale key signatures and fingerings, and major ii-V-I progressions, to the point where you are familiar with these skills in all twelve keys.

‘Learn it in all twelve keys!’ is common refrain in jazz education which often makes it sound like a student should learn a tune or a melodic pattern or a voicing in all twelve keys at one sitting. While this can be valuable, it is also important to relate such concepts to the context of a tune.  With this thought in mind, I have found a number of tunes in The Real Book (Volume 1, sixth edition, published by Hal Leonard) that use the major ii-V-I progression in at least three keys and so are good exercises in constructing voicings for the progression in those keys. I have come up with a tune list that allows one to learn major ii-V-I progressions in all twelve keys through learning a series of six tunes. You can assemble your own list of six tunes through making various combinations of tunes that I have outlined below. The only tune one has to learn to complete this series is the Miles Davis and Eddie Vinson’s Tune Up; other than that, one can assemble the list according to one’s preferences. There are tune options that follow more of a modern jazz/bop direction (which may be more of interest to players interested in instrumental performance) and others that follow more of a ‘standard tune’ direction (which may be more of interest to those interested in singing and vocal accompanying.)

Learn one tune each from Group 1 and Group 2 (starting with either group). These groups include the keys that pianists usually learn first, as they have more straightforward fingering (i.e., RH starts on the thumb, etc.) Once you have learned these two tunes and the six keys through which they move, you can learn one pair of tunes in Group 3 (by choosing one from each of the pairs listed) and one pair in Group 4 (by choosing one of the three pairs listed.) The tunes in these later groups begin in the more basic keys introduced by the first two groups and modulate into keys with more challenging fingerings and ‘keyboard topography’. When you finish the group of six tunes, you will have learned the major ii-V-I progression in all twelve keys.

Group 1 – keys of G, F, Eb (keys shown in exercise) – choose one of three tunes:            Ornithology, How High the Moon, or Laura (not in Real Book Volume One)


Group 2 – keys of D, C, Bb – one tune – learn Tune Up


Group 3 – keys of Ab, Gb, E – choose one from each pair:-

learn I’ll Remember April
 or All The Things You Are

AND Broadway (key of Eb) or Recordame (also uses Bb)


Group 4 – Db, B, A–

learn One Note Samba (includes ii-V-I in Db and B) and I Love You (includes ii-V-I in A)

OR Solar (includes ii-V-I in Db) and
Cherokee (includes ii-V-I in B and A; if root position voicing is used, requires special solution for last four bars of bridge)

OR One Note Samba and Cherokee

Along with learning a tune or pair of tunes in each group, learn the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ exercise below in the three keys of the key group in which you are working.  This exercise takes hands-together scales and chords and two handed combinations of chords and scales through a series of three keys descending by whole steps.  (For Groups 2, 3 and 4 you will need to transpose the exercise below; for group 3, transpose a half step up; for Groups 2 and 4, transpose down to the keys indicated.)ii-V-I in three keys (Doubles and Combinations)

Although root position voicings are useful for building basic knowledge of jazz harmony and making simple arrangements, and are used at times by a number of great players in jazz piano history, they can also (like the ‘blues scale’) become a trap if used exclusively. In addition to learning root position voicings for the ii-V-I progression in each key, it is also important to learn various rootless voicings for it in each key, particularly the most common which are sometimes referred to as ‘off the 7th’ and ‘off the 3rd’. There are a number of books that deal with rootless voicings; I most often use Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg as I find it has the most straightforward layout, but they can also be found in books by Dan Haerle and Michele Weir. Each exercise on the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ sheet (major scale followed by ii-V-I in the same key, ii-V-I in LH with ‘thirteen up and down’ major scale in RH, ii-V-I in RH with quarter note walking bass pattern in LH) can and should be repeated with 3 or 4 note A form or B form rootless voicings (Degreg chapters 4 and 3) replacing root position voicings.

In order to create variety in an arrangement where the form is repeated multiple times, learn the tune three ways:

1) with LH root position voicings (along with the melody in the RH),

2) with rootless voicings in the RH (using either ‘off the 7th’ or ‘off the 3rd’ voicings, or a combination of both) and roots in the LH

3)with rootless voicings in the LH, in the same range where the RH played them, combined with a single note line in the RH (either the melody, or a scale outline, or a bop tune or solo transcription based on the changes of the tune.) For this approach, it is often necessary to move the melodic line up an octave in the RH.

In the case of most of these tunes, it is possible to use one type of rootless voicing throughout the tune (just ‘off the 7th’ or just ‘off the 3rd’), although alternating between different types can often create closer harmony. One exception to this is ‘All The Things’, where staying with only one type of rootless voicing creates too many interruptions in voice leading.

When learning any jazz tune, it is crucial to have access not just to a chart but to a recorded version by a jazz player or singer that demonstrates how to interpret the melody with both rhythmic creativity (i.e. using a swing or Latin rhythmic approach) and melodic creativity (i.e. adding melodic ornaments and fills), as well as how to incorporate improvisation (through improvised sections of various lengths, from fills between melody phrases to half or full chorus solos.) With the tunes on this list in particular, it is helpful to practice one or two handed chordal comping with recorded version in the ‘book key’ at a moderate tempo.  Here are some suggestions of recordings of this type to use:


How High The Moon – Chet Baker from ‘Chet’ album

I Love You – Mick Hucknall (from soundtrack to the Cole Porter bio-pic ‘De-Lovely’) – not a jazz version, but it uses the same changes as the Real Book, and has a good practice tempo.

Laura – Charlie Parker with Strings

Tune Up – Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

All The Things You Are – Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’

(Rollins begins by improvising on the changes rather than stating the melody, so this can be used for practicing chords only)

Broadway – Art Pepper

Recordame – Bobby Hutcherson

One Note Samba – Coleman Hawkins (from Desafinado) – this version uses a different progression (just the Dm7, Db7, Cm7, B7 changes sped up to two beats each) on bar 13 and 14 of the form, but otherwise uses the same changes as the Real Book.

Cherokee – Modern Jazz Quartet

I’ll Remember April – Jim Hall and Ron Carter from Alone Together (Live), Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’, Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

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Pairings, part two: left hand walking bass with right hand chordal comping by Kenny Barron, John Coates Jr. and G.F. Handel (or, Spring Comping Trip)

The piano, more than any other instrument, has the capacity to evoke the sound of a group of players.  In the Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’ that I transcribed in the last post, it could be argued that his left hand bass line and right hand melody line have just as much independence as do Slam Stewart and Don Byas in their duo version of ‘I Got Rhythm’.  Great stride players like Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson incorporated into their solo playing the chordal, bass and melodic parts that Nat King Cole later divided up among the members of his trio.  Another category I have been interested in recently is that of great jazz pianists who excel in a duo context.  For me, Kenny Barron’s work on the duo album ‘People Time’ with Stan Getz places him at the top of this list, although he has made many other great duo recordings, including his work with Frank Morgan and Regina Carter.

One of the most important skills for the duo player is the ability to walk quarter or half note bass in the left hand while comping chords in the right.  As an accompanist, I have always found that this is a crucial way of establishing a rhythmic connection with soloists, both those who are experienced musicians and those whose sense of rhythm needs some guidance.  Throughout most of ‘People Time’, Kenny Barron and Stan Getz display a nearly telepathic connection that allows both of them to play with great rhythmic freedom while still maintaining a clear sense of moving together.   The excerpt I transcribed below, from Barron’s comping on ‘Like Someone In Love’, is a comparatively rare instance where his accompaniment of Getz moves into more deliberate timekeeping.  It is a great example of an active quarter-note bassline combined with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand.  Although this technique is only one of many that Barron uses, for most jazz duo situations, the ability to combine strong left hand walking bass with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand is a crucial survival skill for the pianist.  Barron also employs a number of refreshing chord substitutions on this great standard.  I have transcribed just the first sixteen bars of this chorus, as my idea is that this should serve as a model for your own duo comping, rather than a score from which to perform.Like Someone In Love Kenny Barron comping

John Coates Jr. is what I would call a ‘municipal monster pianist‘ (the term I coined to describe Dave McKenna in the last post.) For more than 50 years,  Coates’ home base was Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where he played at the Deer Head Inn.  (As one newspaper article attests, Coates‘ playing was an influence on the young Keith Jarrett, who grew up in that area; a more recent article reports that Coates has relocated to California.)  Much of Coates‘ recorded output is solo piano music in an improvisational folk-jazz gumbo style that makes clear the extent of his influence on Jarrett.  The excerpt below is from a great version of the standard ‘Moonglow’ on a duo album he made with the fantastic vocalist Nancy Reed at the Deer Head in 2007.  I was not aware of Reed’s singing before hearing this recording, but hearing her made me an instant fan; in addition to being a highly inventive and swinging vocalist, she is equally gifted bass player and I look forward to checking out her music more.  Coates‘ left hand walks in a manner similar to McKenna’s (although Coates’ bassline here uses an even lower range than the McKenna excerpt) while his right hand deftly alternates between chordal comping phrases and single-note fills.John Coates Moonglow

John Coates’ solo playing, documented on the collection ‘The Omnisound Years’, is the work for which he is best known and is well worth checking out.   With interpretations of tunes by Neil Diamond, The Beatles and Cole Porter, this compilation suggests the catholic (in the sense of ‘universal’) breadth of Coates’ repertoire during the 1960s and 70s when the recordings were made.  In his composition Prologue, Coates synthesizes these diverse influences, beginning with an intro that would be at home in an Elton John tune, progressing through some more jazzlike modulation and into a solo that makes shrewd and tasteful use of bebop language.  Like the classic live recordings of Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard and Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, on these recordings Coates is heard in a context of ambient sounds, including dinner conversation, clinking silverware and even a passing car at one point in ‘Prologue’.  The listener gets a strong sense that this music was created in and for a particular social setting, and a particular room.  Although the arc of the melody in ‘Prologue’ has a meditative quality, there is also an energy to Coates’ playing which I think derives from a natural inclination a solo player can develop in live situations to mirror the level of activity in the room where they are playing.

Coates’ solo piano music has a site-specific nature which can also be found in the solo keyboard music of G.F. Handel.  Handel’s keyboard music, in contrast to his concert works, was created for intimate, informal situations such as small social gatherings and concert intermissions (where the level of background noise was likely comparable to that heard behind Coates’ Prologue.)  Handel’s Aria with Variations from his Suite no. 1 in B Flat Major  contains, in its second variation, a valuable etude in combining left hand walking bass and right hand chordal comping.  (A score for the piece can be found here – go to the third score listed under ‘Sheet Music’.)  In addition, this piece also prominently features a number of other techniques which are important skills for jazz pianists, including left hand walking bass with right hand melody (in the first variation) and left hand-right hand conversation (in the third.)

Postscript: I have always enjoyed duo work; some recent recordings I’ve done in that format include a version of eden ahbez’ ‘Nature Boy’ on vocalist Allison Mann’s album For My Mother and Father, and a version of ‘All of You’ that can be heard on the ReverbNation page for Birdcode, a new band that I’ve been working in with bassist John Rivers, drummer Caleb Bronz, and vocalist Amber deLaurentis.

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