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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