Root Systems, Part 1: Join the ii-V-I Club

The exercise notated in the pdf and demonstrated in the keyboard video above combines one-octave major scales using a ‘seven up and down’ pattern with a progression that could be called the two-bar ii-V-I or ‘short’ ii-V-I.   Briefly, a major ii-V-I progression is a series of three seventh chords built off the second, fifth and first steps of a given major scale.  Building seventh chords on these roots results in a succession of three qualities: a minor seventh chord, followed by a dominant seventh chord, followed by a major seventh chord.  The exercise above shows a way of voicing these three chords in close harmony by using a rootless inversion of the middle chord of the progression (the V7).   The exercise above uses only three moves to voice ii-V-I progressions descending by whole steps:

1. The ‘Seven Drop’ (named by one of my students) – The seventh of the minor 7th or ii chord moves down a half step to form the V7 chord -This can be seen in the move from Bm7 to E7 in the first bar of the exercise.

2. The ‘Scale Step Move’ – the bottom two notes of the dominant 7th or V7 chord move down a scale step in the key of the current ii-V-I.  This can be seen in the move from E7 to Amaj7 between bar 1 and bar 2 of the exercise.  This can also be described as ‘middle note down a half step, bottom note down a whole step’, but this is more complicated. Understanding how this move fits into the landscape of the I chord’s major scale is a simpler approach.

3. The ‘Three-Seven’ drop – The top two notes of the major 7th or I chord move down a half step to form the ii chord in the next ii-V-I progression.

First, practice each two-bar phrase in this exercise with RH scale first, making sure you are using the written fingering, then LH chords, noticing your three moves, then hands together. Then, try stringing together groups of two, three and four ii-V-Is at a time with a slow, steady tempo using the metronome. Once you are playing longer stretches of the exercise, try playing along with the bass and drum accompaniment I used in the video.

The ii-V-I progression can establish the tonic key of a tune or the arrival of a new key, or the end of a phrase or the entire tune.  A ‘ii’ chord, as jazz players define it, does not necessarily have to be built of the second step of a tune’s major scale; in fact, any place in a chord progression where there is a minor 7th chord followed a dominant 7th chord with the roots moving up a perfect fourth is commonly referred to by jazz players as a ‘ii-V’.

A few of the many jazz tunes that are based on the two-bar ii-V-I progression and the one-bar ii-V progression include Charlie Parker’s ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ (recorded fairly recently by the fantastic Jon Batiste and Stay Human), Bud Powell’s ‘Strictly Confidential’ (which is used as a ‘shout chorus’ by Diana Krall in her version of another two-bar ii-V-I tune, ‘Let’s Fall In Love’ from Live In Paris), Clifford Brown’s ‘Joy Spring’  Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’ and John Lewis’s Afternoon in Paris.  Lewis’ piano solo on the J.J. Johnson/Sonny Stitt version also features root position voicings. (The last two tunes can be found in The Real Book Volume One, Sixth Edition, published by Hal Leonard.)

In Vermont, there is an organization called The 251 Club whose members aspire to visit all 251 towns in the state.  Some of the members who have actually visited all 251 towns are listed on the club’s website.  The Club’s website has a wonderful mission statement, some of which I think also applies to the jazz player’s lifelong pursuit of building a repertoire of  tunes: ‘Travel at your own pace, in a season or in a lifetime, by…whatever conveyance suits your style…The expectation is that you will be inventive and adventurous in following the road less traveled to Vermont’s little known corners, as well as its more popular destinations.’  Jazz players who have tunes to learn for imminent gigs, concerts and exams do not always get to travel at their own pace.  I find, however, that outside the short-term schedule of each individual performance I give, there is a slower process through which I’ve found the tunes that stay in my memory and under my fingers.  I have chosen some of these tunes, but others have chosen me or have been chosen for me.  I play the music of Bud Powell, for example, because I have always been drawn to it, but I now also know a number of Wayne Shorter tunes by heart because of how many times Ray Vega called them on gigs I played with him.  My personal repertoire has been expanded in similar ways by working with many other collaborators.  While the ability to learn a tune list on a prescribed timeline is an important skill for all musicians, the lifelong process of finding and curating a personal  tune list has its own pace, which you might also call ‘your own pace’.  I also like the 251 Club’s emphasis on being ‘inventive and adventurous’, and visiting both ‘popular destination and little-known corners’, all important reminders for the jazz tune hunter (or perhaps ‘tunehound’.)

While the membership fees are reasonably priced, an implied requirement for being a member of the club is that one has access to a mode of transportation.  Maybe there should be an informal musical organization called ‘The ii-V-I Club’, made up of aspiring and practicing jazz players who seek to learn the ii-V-I progression in all keys or expand their knowledge of it, and to learn tunes that use this important musical building block.  If there were such a group, the voicings and scales above are one ‘vehicle’ that can take you through many tunes that are based on the ii-V-I progression – maybe not two hundred and fifty one tunes, but quite a few.  Besides the list of tunes earlier in this post, more ii-V-I tunes can be found in  the next post in this series, Take Three At A Time, which shows how to assemble a list of six tunes from The Real Book Volume One that take you through ii-V-Is in all keys.  My posts Give It Up for The Root (position pattern)s!  and Midnight Donna and Reets in Paris also show a number of one-bar ii-V and two-bar ii-V-I melodic patterns from bop tunes that are based on that progression.  I wish you a happy, lifelong adventure through the byways of the jazz repertoire, full of lots listening and reading, and encourage you to prepare for the journey by learning the ii-V-I progression in all keys.

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2 Responses to Root Systems, Part 1: Join the ii-V-I Club

  1. Claire Charlow says:

    There is so much to the II-V-I chord progression! The way that it can yield various things, such as a new key, or establishing the tonic key, or just simply the end of a phrase or song. II-V-I gives the ability to freely experiment in ways that aren’t possible with other progressions. Additionally, the voicing of chords can completely change the sound, and exercises such as these are helpful to get accustomed to the different ways in which a tune can be played. Can’t wait to practice this exercise!

  2. Van Garrison says:

    Wow! It really would be a shame if someone were to add or take away a town from vermont because your connection here is just fantastic! I find it interesting how unique the different hand shapes of 2-5-1s are on piano when you transpose to different keys, but other chordal instruments such as the guitar can just move up a few frets. This makes the chase for 2-5-1s in all keys a little more challenging, but it is still rewarding in that it allows us to freely play those types of changes in songs with less thought. Thus, we can start to understand their place in songs and their relationship with other changes. I think the use of 1 scale over the 2-5-1 in the exercise is a smart way to get me and students like me to be more aware of the tonal center. Even when currently on a different root, I need to be aware of how it leads into the 1 when I’m in the middle of a complex song with fast changes or any song really. Thanks for this Tom!

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