Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround

The I VI II V is one of the most common progessions in jazz. In this lesson I am going to go over 10 variations of it and discuss how some of the different substitutions work and how you put them together.

The Turnaround

As I mention in my first lesson on turnarounds and the one on Rhythm changes a I VI II V is in fact an embellished version of a I V progression. It’s very good to keep this in mind, not only for high tempo solos but also just to understand what the basic structure and the point of the turnaround is.

All the examples in this lesson are made on a turnaround in C major.

The basic I VI II V is shown in example 1:

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 1

The first chord that we use a substitution for is the Am7. Since Am7 to Dm7 is a sort of dominant root movement we can change the Am7 into an A7.  The A7 to Dm7 is then an auxiliary dominant resolving to a minor chord so the  scale that works for that is D minor harmonic. The modal name for that type of dominant sound is A7(b9,b13).

A few variations on the VI chord

This is shown in example 2:

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 2

Since we need to move from C to Dm7 we can also choose to substitue the Am7 with a dim passing chord. In this case it will be a C#dim that will function the same as the A7 in example 2, and you should use the same scale to play over it or add extensions to it. The reason for using the C# dim is to get a nice chromatic stepwise bass line.

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 3

Changing the tonic chord

Now that we have a few options for the VI we can start using a substitute for the I chord. The most common version of this is to use the III chord instead of the I chord. For soloing there is very little difference between the two, but in a progression the III chord is not nearl as much of a resting point as the I chord. Furthermore it moves to the VI resolving a 5th down so it adds more forward motion in the bass as well.

You’ll notice that the III does not have a natural 9th in the chord. This is because that is a note that is not in the scale so it will sound a little out of place. In some situations it is ok to use it and in others it may clash with the melody or the soloist.

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 4

Altered dominants

To make the pull back to the I chord at the end of the progression we can alter the V. There are two options for this, you can borrow the dominant from C harmonic minor which gives us a G7(b9,b13) or simply use the altered scale (Ab melodic minor).

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 5

The Em7 is pulling the progression forward where the I is making it rest, making the Em7 a dominant chord is away to make that pull stronger. A dominant is always more unstable sounding and especially since it is not in the key it will give us the feeling that we want to move forward.

You should notice that you need an E7alt or E7(b9,b13) to not clash with the melody that you’d expect on a turnaround in C.

In example 6 I am using the E7, and I also changed the Dm7 to a D7 to get a complete chain of dominants that is pulling to the tonic.
Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 6

Tritone substitution

Since we can use an E7alt we can also use the tritone substitution of that chord. This gives us a bass note that is not even in the key which makes it even more unstable than the E7 and gives it much more forward direction. This is a personal favourite of mine, it isn’t used that often as a turnaround in an AABA form, but it does happen quite often in places where there is an extension at some point.

Bb7 is a tritone substitution so we would consider it a lydian dominant

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 7

Now we have a few variations of dominant chains. First we can add a tritone substitution for the G7: Db7.

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 8

And if we don’t use the Bb7 but use the E7 and a tritone substitue for A7: Eb7. Then we get this chromatically descending line in example 9

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 9

Ladybird Turnaround and the gateway to Giant Steps

The final example is a little left by itself. You can look at this turnaround as a gateway to Giant Steps. In the lady bird turnaround usually you use the I chord, and the tritone subs for A7 and G7. The Dm7 is replaced with an Abmaj7, and the way this works is that we let the Eb7 resolve as a normal dominant to Abmaj7 instead of as a tritone resolving to Dm7. Abmaj7 is related to C major as a bVI borrowed from C minor. You’ll find that in some standards as well.

To shortly connect this to Giant steps you should notice that we are in C and that we modulate down to Ab. If you continue that cycle you get a Giant Steps progression in the key of C:

Cmaj7 Eb7 Abmaj7 B7 Emaj7 G7 Cmaj7

I don’t know if this is where Coltrane got the idea, but it is certainly a possibility.

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround - ex 10

That was 10 variations of the turnaround. As you can see you can easily make more different variation, but they will start to resemble each other a bit more.

I think it is important to be able to recognise that something is just a turnaround and to know the different versions so that you can easily sum up pieces that are mostly turnarounds and that you already reading the piece have a sense of how it works.

If you want to see some examples of lines on these turnarounds then leave a comment on YouTube or social media and let me know!

You can also check out my WebStore lesson on comping on How High The moon:

Comping Etude – How High The Moon

If you want to study the examples away from the video or article you can download a pdf here:

Jazz Chords 10 variations of a I VI II V turnaround

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