How Joe Pass Makes Jazz Chords Simple & Easy

Joe Pass: “First of all, I’ll tell you, If I have a II V, Forget the II.”

So this isn’t exactly how I think chord progressions but I sort of agree with him, and as you will see, the way he breaks down a Jazz standard really is practical and makes it a lot easier to learn the song. I am sure you recognize how difficult it is when you are looking at a song and get completely lost in all the different chords and extensions and alterations which maybe isn’t really how you should think about it anyway.

As you probably already know then Joe Pass is one of my favorite Jazz guitarists. He was a walking library of Jazz standards, he knew all the songs, and I have been told that most of the virtuoso sessions were just the producer, Noman Granz, asking Joe Pass to play a song and then they just recorded that with no rehearsal, which is pretty mind-blowing. That is also why I thought it was exciting to come across this video where he describes how he thinks about chord progressions in songs.

II V is just V

Let’s first look at this II V thing in isolation and then branch out to how this all fits together in songs and how it works with some other chords.

The basic concept is if you have a II V then you can just use the V chord. Joe Pass explains it like this:

“Why are you playing the II what is it? like”

“If you play the V, that got the II!”

“here’s a scale for the V, It’s a G7”

“here’s a scale for the II
it’s the same scale different notes”

The idea of ignoring the II chord and just seeing the whole thing as a V chord is certainly not unique to Joe Pass, I would mostly associate it with how Barry Harris teaches and it is a part of Bebop since it is also fairly easy to spot in Charlie Parker solos. here’s an example from Blues For Alice where he is playing the C# on beat 1 of the Em7 A7 bar, which means that he is not thinking Em7 there at all, just A7.

Pros and Cons of Reducing Chord Progressions

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to this approach.  The obvious advantage is that there are less chords, for example if you look at Confirmation:

where there are suddenly a lot less chords to remember.


Another advantage with reducing II V’s is that the strongest movement in a II V I is the resolution from V to I, and that is still there, so you keep the essence of what is going on, which means that the reduced progression will often still make sense as a chord progression.

Joe Pass demonstrates that they are the same by pointing out that the notes in the scales are the same,  one explanation that I got from a teacher a long time ago was that the II chord is really just a suspension of the V chord, so Dm7 is just a G7sus4 that got out of hand and turned into a m7 chord.

Bebop: More Chords! (but also less chords)

Ironically, Bebop is probably the period in Jazz where it became normal to turn V chords and (a lot of other chords) into II V progressions when harmonizing standards, but that probably also has to do with how Bebop is very much about moving harmony, and if you have a II V I then there is more movement than just the V I.

At the same, they probably thought about a lot of those “extra chords” as embellishments and extra sounds and not than really a description of the actual harmony of the song. An good example of this could be the first two bars of  “Have You Met Miss Jones”:

Fmaj7 Bb7 Am7 D7 Gm7 – Fmaj7 F#dim Gm7

Where the 1st example has a nice flow and a lot of movement and the 2nd one is what is really happening in the harmony of the song, so to speak.

Here you might often solo on the 2nd progression while the comping plays the first.

But you are free to do what ever you want, and it is also nice to sometimes just nail all those changes, even if the comping doesn’t.

Shoot a version without “even if the comping doesn’t”?

Joe Pass: Just 3 Chords!

Joe Pass reduces the progression to essentially 3 chord types:

“I mean a major minor or dominant you must
look at chord changes
really in the simplest form way you can”

And that works really well for reducing the amount of chords in a progression and often will also make it easier to understand how the harmony is flowing, but not always, and maybe tying your understanding to specific chords is not explaining how to improvise or even comp over the song. Making things very simple also sometimes means leaving out useful information, and while your ears and the melody of the song often will help with that,  it can get a bit confusing. And while you think of the simple chords then you still play all the chords when you are comping, so you do need to know what they are.

But it does really resonate with me that you want to keep the chords simple, also in terms of extensions and interpretations of them, which is also why I very often don’t write extensions on the chords at all even though I might be playing that in chord voicing. There is a lot of freedom in how you interpret a chord, and it doesn’t make sense to force a certain sound on it. Instead you want to understand the chord in the context of the song (and the context or band you are playing in) and use that to decide what colors should be added. Extensions can become a distraction from what is actually happening in the song.

Stella is a good example here, and Joe Pass actually reduces this in that video, where the way he interprets the last way back to Bb is what really resonated with me. Here are the most common set of changes:

“You know like if I play Stella By Starlight in the key of Bb the first chord is A7
the second chord is F7
the third chord is B flat seventh
next chord is Eb next chord is Eb minor, Bb”

I’ll get to how Ab7 is Ebm in a bit, but let’s first look at the different dominants.

F7 is clearly the dominant in the key, which is Bb major, and you just hear that sound with a 9th and 13th in the song, even if the original arrangement has a b13 if I remember correctly.

This makes a ton of sense and reducing Cm7 F7 to F7 also works really well, but if you look at the A7 at the beginning of the song then that is not A7 as you would find it in D major. There are a few things that give that away: The II chord in this case is an Eø, and there is a Bb in the melody over the A7. So that chord is more like an A7 in Dm with a b9 and a b13. You should probably not treat the F7 and the A7 the same if you start soloing, and you in general you will quickly come across different types of dominant chords that you want to be able to handle.

In fact, the A7 or Eø A7 is a reharmonization and the chord is originally a diminished chord, what I usually describe as a #IV diminished,

but as you may or may not know I tend to reduce chord progressions to functions rather than chords because that also tells me how I have to play the chords or solo over the progression, the one thing that is clearly not included when you just throw away the II chord.

Barry Harris Approach

WIth that type of dominant sound, Barry Harris has another explanation with the exercise that tells you to play down the “C7 scale to the 3rd of A”

Essentially that scale is D harmonic minor which is the scale that gives you an A7 with a b9 and a b13.

It is a very neat way to introduce the sound of the progression and also get the right extensions in there without having to start talking about harmonic minor and making things complicated.

I guess the downside to thinking in functions is that you need to add other names or another level to how you think about the chord progression and that may be difficult to learn compared to just throwing away a chord. Joe Pass clearly came at this in a very practical way where I also learned from theory lessons when I was studying.

Reviewing Other Peoples Teaching

Just a side-note on this video, I actually get quite a lot of requests to talk about other peoples teaching,  and usually I say no to making a video explaining a video that Rick Beato,  or somebody else made, simply because it seems a bit weird to explain other peoples teaching. In this case, I decided to still do a video because I think it is really interesting to hear how Joe Pass thinks about chords and you can actually find a lot in this 1 to 2-minute segment of a very long video.

IVm and Backdoor Dominants

The other thing that really resonated with me , and actually is the reason I decided to make this video, is how Joe Pass described this section:

“3rd chord is Bb7 next chord
is Eb next chord is Eb minor Bb”

So he clearly hears the Ab7 as a minor subdominant since that dominant is then turned into a IV minor chord, rather than keeping it as a dominant, which to me also suggests that his ears probably think in functions as well.

A lot of the most beautiful harmony in Jazz standards is about minor subdominant chords in major. That small group of chords can do magical things, and it is very useful to realize that they belong together and that you can often mess around with changing one out for the other.

In this case, the song is in Bb major, so the IV chord is Eb and the IVm chord will be Ebm, as Joe plays in the video.

The different chords you then have available as common minor subdominant options would be:

Ebm6, EbmMaj7, Ebm7, Ab7, Gbmaj7, Bmaj7 and Cø.

The important notes for the sound are probably that the chord contains the Gb which is the minor 3rd of Ebm and that it does not contain an A, because that would make it a dominant chord.

Learning some Cole Porter songs will help you get acquainted with most of them, he also uses them really a lot.

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