9 December 2013

Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 4

Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 4


This is a subject which has always challenged me as a player and a teacher because it doesn’t follow the fairly straight forward way you can approach a II V I in a major key. 


Simply put, when improvising on a major key II V I you can use the notes from the parent major scale as a generic source for improvising melodies. The II V I is an elaborate perfect cadence (V-I) with II being V of V and constiutes the harmonic material of 75% of standard jazz chord sequences. This is why it is so important to master improvising over the II V I sequence in every key.


So for example in C major here is the typical II V I chord progression:

|Dm7 G7 |Cmaj7 | and the C major scale will work over all 3 chords (although there are many other ways of playing on it).


Even if you want to describe the options here as modes, the modes will all be from the C major scale:


Dm7     D dorian        (mode II of Cmajor)

G7     G mixolydian    (mode V of Cmajor)

Cmaj7     C Ionian        (mode I  of Cmajor)


However you can’t do this to the same degree with a II V I in minor keys (often signified as ii V i). And this is for 2 main reasons:


  • There isn’t just one minor scale , there are at least 4 (natural, melodic, harmonic and dorian)


  • The individual chords in a minor II V I can be treated individually although it is possible to make the harmonic minor and to a lesser extent the natural minor fit all 3 chords.


For these very reasons the minor II V I presents both challenges and opportunities for the improviser.


Just so you are clear here are those 4 minor scales in the key of C minor:

C minor (natural) also called pure minor, melodic minor descending (in classical parlance), Aeolian mode (mode VI of Eb major) and simply the relative minor (of the relative major Eb): 

C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab Bb C

C melodic minor  aka minor-major: C  D  Eb  F  G  A  B  C

C harmonic minor : C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab  B C

C dorian minor  (absent in in classical theory) (mode II of Bb major): C  D  Eb  F  G  A Bb  C

If you analyse these four scales you will see that scale degrees I to V are constant (always: C  D Eb F G). Scale degrees VI and VII can be lowered as a minor 6th or minor 7th) or raised to a major 6th and 7th.

C minor (natural) has a minor 6th and minor 7th : Ab Bb

(as per the key signature)

C melodic minor  has a major 6th and major 7th : A  B 

C harmonic minor  has a minor 6th and major 7th : Ab B 

C dorian minor  has a major 6th and minor 7th : A  Bb 

There are therefore 4 permutations and that’s why there are 4 minor scale varieties as above.

You can vary other notes in the scale (eg a minor 2nd for Phrygian) but that is far less common.


Now here are common way of representing the minor II V I  is here with C minor as an example:


|Dm7b5   G7b9 |Cm   |

|DØ   G7 alt |Cm7    |     

|DØ   G7+9 |Cm6    | etc., and these can be mixed. 




The I chord (Cm)

Eg Cm7 has a Bb and so will work best with a scale with that note C natural minor or dorian minor.

Cm6 has an A natural so will work well with C melodic minor or C dorian minor.

Cm(∆7) has a B natural so will work well with C harmonic or melodic minor.

Any of the 4 scales above can be used with a Cm chords but the type of Cm chord will influence which scale is best because you can match the scale to the type of Cm chord.

You can also avoid using notes 6 and 7 altogether and just play on notes 1 2 3 4 5 and so avoid having to choose any particular scale. And of course you can purposely choose the “wrong” scale and play “against” the chord.


The II chord (DØ or Dm7b5)

This chord has D F Ab C and typically you can use D locrian or D half diminished scales:

D locrian (mode VII of Eb major or mode II of C natural minor): D  Eb  F  G  Ab Bb C  D

D half diminished (aka locrian #2) (mode VI of F melodic minor): D  E  F  G  Ab Bb C  D


The V7 chord (G7b9 etc)

G altered (aka super locrian, diminished whole tone) mode VII of Ab melodic minor: 

G  Ab Bb Cb  Db  Eb  F  G  

G whole tone: G  A  B  Db  Eb  F  G  

G inverted diminished (aka dominant diminished): G  Ab Bb B C# D  E  F  G  

G Phrygian b4 (mode III of Eb harmonic major):  G  Ab Bb Cb  D  Eb  F  G       (my favourite! – try it)




This is much more approachable and as said above it is possible to make the C harmonic minor and to a lesser extent the C natural minor fit all 3 chords. (ie the tonic minor or the I minor). You have to be careful with note choices to avoid clashes but the harmonic minor can sound particularly good when played properly across the whole II V I. 


I have been working on the minor II V I this myself in my recent practise and wrote down quite a lot of phrases (licks or patterns) which go with it. I have compiled these in a pdf which you can download form here by clicking:

Minor II V I phrases (short and long) by Terry Seabrook and Phil de Gregg


Some use the first method (separate treatment) and some the second (generic treatment).

As you play them you can analyse them and I have started by pointing out the scales involved.

There is also the use of chromatic passing notes and neighbour tone, etc. 

These should be played in every key and sung as well because you need to get the sound into your head and vocabulary. You should start to transcribe and create some of your own. In the end you start to improvise form this standpoint of “the sound in your head” rather form all this theory but that’s the journey or one way of making the journey. 


Here are the main forms of short and long II V I and II V sequences as they occur in songs:

|II   V |I      |        short 

|II      |V     |I    |I   |    long

|II   V |            short 

|II      | V    |        long


And finally you need to put this sound into some real songs. Here are some songs which use II V and II V I sequences to some extent: 

(With numbers per chorus)

Blue Bossa (3)

Autumn Leaves (4)

Woody n you (9 –ii-V)

Yardbird Suite(bridge) (2)

Donna Lee (3)

Moanin’ (11 x 1-iv-ii-V-i)

Softly as in a morning Sunrise(11 x 1-iv-ii-V-i)

Stella by Starlight (5 ii-V)

I thought about you (5)

Carnival (10!)

Alone Together (8)

Love for Sale (5)

Nica’s Dream (4)

What is this thing called love (6)

Beautiful Love (8)


Good luck. Terry Seabrook Dec 2013


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