September 5th, 2012

Your Next Musical Milestone: Chromatic ii-V’s

By Eric

The process of learning to improvise is a journey. A long and rewarding journey and one that is punctuated by a series of milestones.

This can be hard to see from that comfy seat inside of your practice room, but take a step back from your daily routine and look at the path that brought you to where you are today.

You played your first notes, you learned your first scale, you learned your first tune, you figured out the inner workings of a chord progression, you got fluent in all 12 keys, you worked on the blues and rhythm changes, you learned your first ii-V- I line, you transcribed your first solo…

As you begin your musical journey these milestones are huge and transform you at a personal level. Your first notes on your instrument turned you into a musician. Your first solo over that chord progression made you an improviser.

These leaps forward changed your identity and set you apart from everyone around you. However the better you get, these breakthroughs are fewer and far between. More effort and determination is required to make even the smallest step forward.

But even the small steps forward are essential to your improvement and gradually move you toward your goal of becoming a great improviser. This musical path that you’re on can be as long or short as you want it to be. Your destination can be the sound that you hear on your favorite records or maybe you just want to be better than you were last week.

Whatever your aspirations, this path to your goal is paved with many milestones…

Getting started with chromatic ii-V’s

So let’s go back to that stuffy practice room. You’ve taken a quick inventory of your musical progress: you’ve learned some tunes, you’ve got some instrumental technique, you feel comfortable over standards, you’ve transcribed some solos and you can even navigate ii-V’s like clockwork. But what’s your next major breakthrough?

Answer: Chromatic ii-V’s

One of the musical milestones that many improvisers can intellectualize and analyze, but few can play well over is the chromatic ii-V7 progression – a sequence of ii-V7 progressions either ascending or descending by half-step:

In your journey through the Great American Songbook, you’ve probably run across some chromatic ii-V’s, especially if you’ve played any of these common standards:

  • Moment’s Notice
  • Stablemates
  • Lover
  • Blues for Alice
  • The Eternal Triangle

To get a quick idea, listen to this version of Stablemates from the Paul Chambers album Chambers’ Music with John Coltrane. Especially listen for the descending chromatic ii-V in the first two bars of the progression, | E-7 A7 | Eb-7 Ab7 | Db |:

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Chromatic ii-V’s are also commonly used in a number of standards to add interest and harmonic tension to the otherwise predictable progression of the ii-V-I. Some familiar tunes that use this concept are:

  • It Could Happen to You:  last two bars of A section
  • Woody’n You: 2nd and 6th bar of the bridge
  • You Stepped Out of a Dream:
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Instead of playing a “normal ii-V” in the last two bars of the A section:

A chromatic ii-V, a half-step above the original is inserted, doubling the harmonic motion and adding some tension. Listen for these spots in the above video as Dexter plays (0:28, 1:08, 1:49, etc.):

It’s also important to keep in mind that chromatic ii-V’s aren’t only limited to the “written” chord progression. You can imply this device in various places throughout a tune as you solo. For instance, as illustrated in the above example, you can insert a chromatic ii-V before the final ii-V in a tune or any strong resolution point.

Employing this simple device in can add harmonic interest, especially when you imply them over the original static chord progression.

Concepts for improvising over chromatic ii-V’s

The first stumbling block that we encounter as we try to play over chromatic ii-V’s is connecting these two unrelated progressions in some sort of musical way. In this case, ii-V doesn’t lead to the I chord as we would expect, it leads to another ii-V.

What’s more, this second ii-V is not related to the first ii-V at all. The key center is completely different and there are hardly any common tones with which you can easily connect them. Coming from the guidelines of harmony that we’re familiar with  iii – VI – ii – V – I , creating a logical improvised line can be tough.

The goal in these situations, is to come up with something musical, not mechanical. However, like many musical concepts this is easier said than done.

When you first begin, chromatic ii-V’s can feel like a sort of musical straight jacket. It’s as if you are forced to play a specific pattern just to avoid hitting a wrong note or getting lost in the form. The changes are so complex and moving by so quickly that the only option you have is to outline the chords or insert a memorized lick.

The result is a premeditated music theory exercise instead of a flowing melodic solo.

So how do you improvise musically over chromatic ii-V’s?

As with the majority of your difficulties with improvisation, it’s best to consult the records for the answers. Rather than trying to follow one set method or a bunch of music theory guidelines, go put on a recording of your favorite player. There are a ton of options out there. Tunes like Blues for Alice, Moment’s Notice, and even Stablemates have been recorded hundreds of times over the years by pretty much every major player you can think of.

Study these players and figure out how they sounded good over these challenging progressions. Once you’ve picked out a recording you like, isolate those spots in the tune with chromatic ii-V’s. Then, put them into Transcribe to loop the phrase and slow it down.

It’s no coincidence that nearly every great musician subscribes to the mantra “slow practice.” Listen to that phrase you’ve selected a dozen times, sing along with the record, figure out the notes and intervals on your instrument, and analyze how those note choices relate to the chord progression. Then slowly get the line up to speed – up to the point that you can effortlessly play along with the recording. Your ultimate goal is to ingrain these lines into your ears and your technique, to eventually make that line a part of yourself.

The process is the same whether you’re trying to get language over one ii-V or figuring out how to play over the blues. You need a model to study, some language that you can start with, and hours of practice ingraining that technique or sound into your own playing.

Simply put, take one small idea and practice it until you get it.

Below I’ve taken some key spots from a few well known solos and extracted some ideas that caught my ear over those troublesome chromatic ii-V’s. With each example I’ve highlighted some techniques and concepts that you can incorporate into your own playing.

Remember there are countless ideas to be found on any recording, it’s up to you which ones you pick, study, and incorporate into your playing.

Creating lines vs. playing ii-V licks

One of the first traps that we fall into as we play over a tune like Moment’s Notice is inserting ii-V licks over each ii-V. For instance you commonly hear predictable lines like this played over chromatic ii-V’s:

Seems logical enough, right? You’re following the theory rules and you have all the 7-3 resolutions. Just cut-and-paste one ii-V lick and you’re good to go??

As you can see, it’s a very stop start way of improvising. Instead of taking this route, try to play phrases that go across the bar lines and aim to use language instead of licks. Start thinking in terms of a continuous musical phrase rather than that cut and paste lick approach.

To get an idea of this concept, let’s check out a few lines from John Coltrane’s solo on Moment’s Notice:

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Take this line for example, from Trane’s second chorus (1:38 in the video):

In this example we hear a seamless lines, the musical phrase doesn’t break because the chords change, no stop and start between ii-V licks.

One thing that is often startling when you analyze Coltrane’s solos from a certain period, is that they are often very inside harmonically. We commonly think of his playing as pushing the limits and exploring the boundaries of harmonic potential, but a large part of his development and mastery of improvisation was spent mastering standards and common ii-V-I’s.

However, when you take a close look at the lines that he is playing, you see something different than what you might expect. As the progressions become more complex and as the harmonic motion of the tune increases, the melodic content of his solos becomes simpler. (use of bebop scales, arpeggios, triads, language) similar to the way he plays over Giant Steps.

Here is another example from the same solo (1:57 in the video):

In the case of a chromatic ii-V like we find in Moment’s Notice, you don’t always have to think about your line starting at the beginning of the form and One ii-V is an extension of a previous phrase, the next ii-V is the start of another phrase, not just isolated ii-V’s. Take a look at how Trane uses this idea at the beginning of his third chorus (2:14 in the video):

Instead of starting every line on beat one of the first measure, he continues his line from the previous chorus into the next chorus. Essentially splitting those two ii-V’s up and eliminating the difficulty of connecting those two sounds.

V7 instead of ii-V7

Playing over chromatic ii-V’s can get overwhelming and stressful pretty quickly, especially on up-tempo tunes, so anything that we can do to simplify this progression is extremely useful. One way to simplify things is to think of the entire progression as a single chord (only the V7 or only the ii-7 chord)

This type of thinking can quickly simplify this complex progression:

    • | E-7 A7 | F-7 Bb7 | becomes | A7 |  F-7 Bb7 |
    • | E-7 A7 | F-7 Bb7 | becomes | E-7 A7 | Bb7 |
    • | A7 | Bb7 | Eb |

For example, let’s look again at one of those Coltrane lines from above:

Over the | F-7 Bb7 | in the third measure of the example, he uses a descending Bb7 bebop scale over the entire ii-V progression. Rather than a jumble of confusing ii-V’s you can just think of a plain old V7 chord and apply your dominant language over that entire progression.

Or here’s another example of substituting V7 for ii-V from Sonny Stitt’s solo on the bridge to Eternal Triangle:

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On the bridge of his second chorus (3:35 in the video) he plays the line shown below, emphasizing the V7 of every ii-V7 chord.

Similar to the Coltrane example, Stitt uses a descending bebop scale of the V7 chord for each ii-V7.

You can also go the other way and substitute the ii chord for the entire measure instead of the usual ii-V7.
In the progression below, think | E- |  instead of  | E- A7 | and | Eb- | instead of | Eb- Ab7 | :

Imply just the minor ii chord over that entire ii-V within a chromatic ii-V sequence:

With this mindset you have an entire measure to apply any minor language that you’ve developed and you greatly simply the complexity of moving between chromatic ii-V’s – you’re just moving from one minor chord to the next.

Connecting those ii-V’s

The crucial spot in chromatic ii-V’s comes in finding the connection between one ii-V to the next. Focus on this spot, practicing it very slowly. Study how great improvisers navigate this tricky area and employ these devices in your own playing.

Below is an example of how Clifford Brown solves the problem of connecting chromatic ii-V’s in a musical way. This excerpt is taken from his solo on the tune Cookin’ which is a Bird blues (1:54 in the clip below):

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Notice how Clifford connects his line from one measure to the next by half-steps:

Aim for this type of logical resolution in your own lines.

Changing direction

One thing that can make your playing very predictable is the direction of your lines.

In the above example, every phrase starts and stops with the same lick an ascending minor arpeggio that resolves downward.  It sounds like a music theory exercise because that is essentially what it is, the same line in the same direction over and over again.

Change direction in your line, as shown in Coltrane example, as the progression ascends by half step, have your line descend, Many players get stuck playing a sequence for each set of ii-V’s, using a ii-V lick and transposing it through each succesive key. if you go up one ii-V, go down the next one:

Take a listen to the Parker line (0:49 in the clip below):

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This line isn’t that harmonically different from the ii-V “exercise” above, however it is in a different world musically. Rhythmically the line is much more interesting, not just eighth notes, and the direction of the line is varied from one measure to the next.

Harmonic anticipation and delayed resolution

One way to steer clear of the predictability of chromatic ii-V’s is to avoid resolving each chord on the barline or as the chord changes. An effective way to do this is through the use of delayed resolution and harmonic anticipation. Instead of changing progressions on the bar lines wait one or two beats before or after the chord to resolve. Take a look at that Clifford Brown excerpt again:

Notice how he doesn’t resolve the chord at it arrival, but rather delays the resolution by a few beats. He achieves this effect primarily through the use of enclosures.

Besides delaying the arrival of the chord, you can also anticipate the next progression (see this article for more detail).

Anticipating a chord is essentially starting new progression one or two beats before its arrival. Once again let’s go back to that Sonny Stitt line on the bridge of Eternal Triangle for a great example of this concept:

Notice how he anticipates the arrival of each chromatic ii-V by a few beats.

Chord substitutions

Finally you can explore substitutions for the chromatic ii-V’s you encounter. For ascending chromatic ii-V’s (like Moment’s Notice) you can imply a minor ii-V a minor 3rd above the original progression (check out this article for more info):

| E-7 A7 | F-7 Bb7 | becomes | G-7 C7 | F-7 Bb7 |

or you can even think of it like this:

| E-7b5  A7 alt. | =  | G-7 C7 |

In the above progression, | E-7 A7 | F-7 Bb7 |, the problem spot is connection the A7 to the F-7. This minor 3rd substitution essentially replaces A7 with C7, which naturally leads to F-7 in the next measure.

Here are some other ideas that you can experiment with by altering the V7 chord:

  • There are many possibilities continuing with the concept above of using a diminished triad relationship, for that A7 chord you can substitute C7, Eb7, and F#7.
  • Experiment with Tritone substitutions on the V7 chords:| E-7 Eb7 | F-7 E7 | Eb Maj7 |or replace the first ii-V by transposing it up a minor 3rd and tritone sub those V7 chords:| G-7 F#7 | F-7 E7 | Eb Maj7 |   which creates a nice descending chromatic motion.
  • Tritone sub with only the V7 chords: | A7 | Bb7 | Eb Maj7 | becomes | Eb7 | E7 | Eb Maj7|

 Practicing these methods and concepts

The idea of playing well over chromatic ii-V7’s goes directly back to playing well over a single ii-V7 progression. If you have trouble over one ii-V, multiple ii-V7’s moving by half steps are going to be very difficult. If you can’t play over Satin Doll,  Moment’s Notice is going to feel impossible.

One thing that you have to remember is that all of these concepts and lines look great on paper and hopefully they make sense in your mind, but when it comes to actually playing them in your solos, you need to get to another level of understanding.

You need to physically hear the sound of these lines, you need to ingrain them in your ear and fingers through repetition, you need to transform that music theory into language.

Practice these concepts and sounds slowly and out of time at first. Hear the nuance of each musical device and spend time until they are ingrained.

Get the sound of the progression in your ear and try to play what you would sing over these chords. It’s very easy to sound mechanical and unmusical over chromatic ii-V’s. Thinking only of voice leading rules (i.e. 7-3 resolutions or arpeggios) can become very predictable and boring and disjunct from a melodic perspective

All of these lines and devices are useful to study, but remember that you will gain the most benefit from transcribing them yourself. It’s one thing to look at them on paper and it’s an entirely different thing to listen to them and figure them out for yourself.

Finding your milestone

Enjoying and appreciating each of these milestones is one of the great parts of practicing this music. Getting up to speed on chromatic ii-V’s is just one example of a musical milestone that you can aim for. No matter where you are in your development, no matter how far you’ve come, you can always practice, study, and listen and improve a little more, aiming for that next milestone in your musical development.

The nice thing about improvisation, is that you can continually come back to any aspect of the music and improve and expand your abilities and knowledge. With something as simple as a major chord, a ii-V progression, or the blues there will always be room for improvement…always.

You can apply new concepts you’ve discovered through listening, new language that you’ve transcribed, and new techniques that you’ve developed on your instrument. Those tunes, chords, and progressions continue to remain the same, however, you are bringing something new to the table every time you attempt them. The potential for improvement and discovery is always just a focused practice session away.