How The Pros Think About Chord Progressions (and you probably don’t)

If you are trying to learn Jazz and especially the first time you are looking at how to learn a Jazz standard, then you probably know how it is to look at a piece of sheet music and then feel that the chords are flying by in an impossible tempo.

I started thinking about this because a few weeks ago I was playing a gig with a saxophone player that I know for a long time, and we were talking about what songs to play.  It was a gig in a cafe and we were just playing standards. One of the songs he suggested was Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady”

Sophisticated Lady is a song that I first learned very early on when I was still living in Copenhagen and actually I never played it since. When I was talking to the saxophone player then we could both remember looking at that song for the first time and thinking what the “hell is going on and why are the SO many chords in this?!”

And that is of course how many jazz standards will come across,  with a lot of chords that are hard to remember and even harder to improvise over.

But there is a way to make that easier, both to solo over and to remember, and the way I do this also shows why I lean so heavily on functional harmony and just how powerful a concept that actually is, but also want to talk about Pat Martino’s and Barry Harris’ systems for this which can get a bit strange but are also often very practical as well.

Learning a Jazz Standard By Heart

There was one thing that really slowed me down when I was learning songs in the beginning.

The first time I set out to really start learning a Jazz standard, then I spent two months alone in a house learning Stella By Starlight and There’s no Greater Love. Just recording a simple chorus of the chords, practicing the melody, and improvising on them every day. I kept going until I could get a simple solo to sort of make sense over them, I could hear where I was and knew the chords by heart.

The problem is that I learned everything one chord at a time. I was not thinking in groups of chords that follow each other, or groups of chords that sound similar. Chunking the chords together will make it a lot easier to learn a song because you can reduce it to a few building blocks and you know how those blocks sound, so remembering and internalizing it becomes a lot easier.

Music is a language, so I will use that comparison to help you see just how powerful this is, but first you need to clean up the chords a bit.

Don’t get distracted by extensions

A problem that I get many questions about is ho to think extensions, and whether you can use a C7(13) instead of a C7(9) and so on. And that is not really how you want to think about chords if you play Jazz. A chord is a lot of options and what notes you play, or extensions you add are more about what you want and what is going on around you in the band and in the song.

It is not thinking “now I want to play a C7(13)” Because that is not really a music thing it is a symbol that you can maybe turn into music, but you need to know how and often that means ignoring the extensions.

In the beginning, you are probably learning songs from a lead sheet like in a real book, and first you really just want to get rid of the extensions,

because what is important is the type of chord and the context, so just focus on the basic 7th chord, forget about 9ths and 11ths. You want to understand that from the other chords around it and the melody not a chord symbol, after all, a piece of music is not a row of letters in iReal.

Of course, you don’t have to literally change the sheet music, just how you think about it. Now we can get to work!

A song is a sentence


It is difficult to memorize and make sense of long rows of letters,

but if you start grouping the letters into words then you are attaching meaning to them and that is a lot easier to remember.

And this, of course, also works for Jazz songs, so if you can sum up 32 bar song as a bunch of smaller progressions then you have to remember a lot less, and if you are used to improvising over those smaller progressions then soloing on the song is also going to be a lot simpler.

But there are actually quite a few more advantages!

The Basic Vocabulary and where to get it

For this to work then you need to get used to thinking and recognizing the words or building blocks in the chord progressions, and you use the songs you know and the songs you are learning to spot chord sequences that you see more often. Essentially this is also why it is beneficial to analyze chord progressions.

Some of the common things you certainly want to start recognizing are things like:

Of course, the II V I as you see here in Perdido, and take the A-train

I VI II V turnaround in Rhythm Changes or Blue Moon

The V of V which you also want to notice very often is placed in certain parts of the form, so at the end of the first half as it is here in There Will Never Be or at the end of the bridge as you see in Satin Doll

The same can be said about the II V to IV, it is also very often placed in the bridge or positioned so the IV chord is at the beginning of the 2nd 8 bars of the form what you see in There Will Never Be Another You. – There Will Never Be and Satin Doll

Another useful block is IV IVm I progression which is also very common and something you want to recognize. Here it is in There Will Never Be Another You and you also have it in All The Things You Are.

The next thing will make it even more clear why you want to learn this from songs, and then we need to get into the Barry Harris and Pat Martino thing.

Hear the Harmony

A problem when you look at a lead sheet for the first time, or even just the chords in iReal, is that it is hard to have any idea about how those chords sound, but if you are used to thinking in turnarounds, II V Is, V of V etc then you are actually working towards being able to hear the harmony just from looking at the chart, and that is incredibly useful and makes it a lot easier to play a song for the first time.

It is similar to how you probably find it really easy to play a song if you are told it is a blues, something that you just already are very familiar with the sound of.

But for that to happen the words or building blocks should not be only theoretical things, they need to be something that you know the sound of, and that is the easiest to achieve by recognizing them in the songs you know really well. At the same time then you can probably also see how this will help you pick up songs faster by ear since you can rely on hearing groups of chords and not each chord in the song, and there is a good chance you are already doing this with things like turnarounds.

Chord Progressions Are All The Same (sometimes)

A danger with trying to learn building blocks is that you get stuck on the details, which is similar to getting stuck with the extensions that I talked about earlier. With stuff like this it makes the most sense to focus on how chord progressions are similar more than how they are different.

So it is a turnaround if it resembles that and all of these progressions are essentially the same thing, but maybe for this song or this arrangement one of them fits better than the others, but it is more important to also realize that it is a turnaround.

Cmaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7

Cmaj7 A7 Dm7 G7

Em7 A7 Dm7 G7

Cmaj7 C#dim Dm7 G7

Cmaj7 A7 D7 G7

E7 A7 Dm7 G7

Em7 Ebdim Dm7 G7

Bb7 A7 Dm7 G7

The reason why I consider these the same is that they will often be interchangeable and will work in the same way in a song. If you want to take this into the language analogy then these would be synonyms, words with essentially the same meaning, give or take a nuance.

You can expand this to other things as well like IV IVm I progressions which are essentially subdominant – minor subdominant to tonic.

Fmaj7 Fm6 Cmaj7

Fmaj7 Bb7 Cmaj7

Dm7 Bb7 Cmaj7

F#ø Fm6 Cmaj7

And here a big part of why that is important to know is that these progressions sound similar, and have the same important notes and voice-leading, which means that you can approach soloing over them in very similar ways.

The Opposite Methods

One thing that is often very practical when looking at chord progressions that you want to solo over is to reduce the amount of chords in there, and this is where Pat Martino and Barry Harris sort of have opposite approaches.

The reason that you can leave chords out is that a lot of chords are really just embellishments and can be ignored without the solo losing the connection to the song, and it is easier to play strong melodies if you are not tied down by having to spell out a lot of changes.

A very useful example of this is the A part of Rhythm changes where there are a lot of chords but you can really reduce it to just one chord per bar.

The reduced version of the chords still contains the basic movement of the song and this will work great for solos.

As I mentioned, both Pat Martino and Barry Harris have systems for this, and they are both very simple rules.

For Pat Martino, everything is a II chord, so a II V becomes just a II chord.

Barry Harris goes the other way and throws away the II chord and says it is all V

Both of these can be useful, I think it really depends on the song. I think that Barry Harris’ approach gives you more natural chord progression when you have thrown away all the II chords, where Pat Martino becomes a bit strange giving you a Blues in F that looks like this:

At the same time, for guitar players connecting everything to minor seems to make it easier, maybe because we are all stuck in the minor pentatonic box 1 for eternity?

But to be fair then applying Barry’s rule to a song like I Should Care or Wes’ Four on Six also becomes a bit strange, so maybe you want to be aware of both systems and be flexible enough to use the one that works the best for you in whatever song you are playing. At least, that is what I have taken away from that. In music, context is everything.

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