Your II V I Approach Is Wrong
Your approach to II V I progressions is probably wrong, and that is getting in the way of your solos sounding right.
A small part of this is what you play because it is much more about how you think about the chords.
There are different strategies for this which all work even if they don’t agree at all, I’ll cover my approach but also show you methods from Barry Harris, Pat Martino, and Joe Pass. Once I got my thinking on this right then things really started to fall into place and my solos really started to make a lot more sense, and then you can take it a LOT further than II V I progressions.
The first thing you want to get right, and I think this is true for all progressions, not just a II V I, is that if you want to solo over it then you should also be able to play the chords, that is how you hear the flow of the harmony and what your solos lines should sound like.
Essential II V I basics
Before we get into the approaches of different people then let’s look at what a II V I is. The progression is described as a II V I because it is in a key, and that key is the I chord. Let’s take C major, and look at what key and a II V I is:
Here you have the notes of a C major scale:
C D E F G A B C
and for each note in that scale you can build a 7th chord:
Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bø Cmaj7
with these chords, called the diatonic chords of C major), you usually assign Roman numerals so that you know which key you are in and what this chord is relative to the key.
Now you can pick out the II V I to be: Dm7 G7 Cmaj7,
and you can play the chords,
maybe play them a few times to get the sound into your ears. You can use these voicings and then vary the rhythm a bit.
II V I licks – Essential Ingredients
Before we get into the different strategies you need to have the basics of Jazz solos down. In Jazz, you mostly play melodies that are related to the chords, so your solo should consist of lines where you can hear the chords even if there is no one actually playing them. Try and listen to this, you probably hear the chord changes in there:
The easiest way to play solo lines like that is to use the same notes as the chords, so the arpeggios of those chords.
And since the whole progression is in one key, in this case, C major, then you want to think about those arpeggios as a part of the C major
scale, so this scale:
and then you have these simple 1-octave arpeggios:
And, of course, you want to practice playing licks with just those basic arpeggios, because they can sound great, something like this, remember to use rhythm as well:
But, as you heard in the beginning, they are in a key, so that scale can also be used to give you some more notes to add in there. Visually you think about the scale as the thing that holds the whole thing and You think of some notes being more important than others,
but you can use all of them, and notice how I don’t always use all the notes in the arpeggios, there is no rule that says that you have to do that.
But you want to make the melodies flow right too, just playing the right notes won’t cut it:
And this is about the one thing that is so incredibly important about the II V I.
It is One thing!
The problem with the previous example was not the notes, they are perfect and also in terms of following the chords. The problem is that they don’t connect and there is no connection between the melodies per chord.
But the II V I is not just 3 random chords next to each other, you can’t just change the order and get the same result, which is a part of the reason that I don’t like the modal description of Dorian, Mixolydian, Ionian. What makes this work is that there is a development and that the chords flow forward to the end on the I chord.
And, the easiest way to get that flow in there is to play lines that move to the next chord, and that is not as abstract or difficult as it might sound.
Target Notes – An Amazing Strategy!
If you want the solo line to flow from one chord to the next then the easiest strategy is simply to think of a note you want to hit and play a melody that ends on that, but you do want to have the right target note, I’ll get to that in a bit. Moving from Dm7 to G7 then B is a good target note, notice how especially the last part of the phrase aims for the B on beat 1
Being able to play phrases that connect chords like this is an essential skill, and also something you will see in solos all over Jazz. It is not the only thing to learn, but it is a great place to start.
When it comes to choosing target notes, then it makes sense to focus on the clear notes of the chords that really describe the color like the 3rd of the chord, and you make it easier for yourself by choosing a note that was not in the previous chords, like I took B which is the 3rd in G7 and not in Dm7.
In my approach, I am showing you how to spell out each chord in the II V I but there are other ways of negotiating this 3-chord building block, and I have my own take on those as well.
Barry Harris and Pat Martino Disagree on II Vs
This sometimes becomes a sensitive topic because you are inclined to follow one strategy and not like the rest, but I’ll talk about that in a bit as well.
There are 3 chords in a II V I, and no matter how you look at it, then the point of the progression is that something is moving and that there is a resolution. But how you choose to interpret the II V side of the progression is a lot more open.
You have Pat Martino, who likes to convert chords to m7 chords, as he talks about here with Giant Steps
The way he would approach the II V I it sort of becomes II I, so he will play lines over the II chords and not really think too much about the V chord. He talks about how this was something he learned from experience, and there are passages in Wes’s solos that suggest that he often thought in the same way, and that may well be where Martino got it since he was very influenced by Wes.
The advantage is that there are fewer chords, the disadvantage is that you are not playing V I which is probably the strongest part of what is happening, and the II chord is just a suspension of the V chord.
Barry Harris and Joe Pass do the opposite of this as you have probably heard in this clip:
So here the II chord is ignored and you focus on the V I resolution which, as I mentioned earlier, is the strongest movement in the II V I. Both Barry and Joe talk about this, where Joe is maybe a bit more practical in his explanation, and this is also something you will see in a lot of solos of Parker, so it is clear where it came from.
Again it is great to have fewer chords, but as I have also said quite often: there are no rules in music, so this rule also becomes a bit strange if you have a secondary dominant leading into the II chord, maybe like an A7 Dm7 G7 Cmaj7. If you are only thinking about the G7 then you have to learn to play A7(b9) to G7 which is maybe not the most natural thing to do, and also not what is really there.
So my take on this, which will certainly be a hot take for some, is that the strongest of the two is probably Barry Harris. Still, in my experience then you want to be able to play all 3, simply because it will give you more options and also connect better with the music so that you hear the harmony. You play over what you hear without having to translate or ignore something in the music. But only focusing on one of the chords in the II V can also be a great way to get inspiration for melodies so it is incredibly useful to play Dm7 Cmaj7 like this:
Or just thinking G7 and creating lines like this:
If you can play all 3 chords then you can also easily choose to only play two of them, and with target notes, it is fairly easy to get from one chord to the next, that is one of the biggest strengths in that system.
Learn The Language
The melodies you play are probably more important than what chords you think, and you want to focus on that aspect of learning to play Jazz, so that your solos flow though the chords but also have the right feel and sound. This is not so much about finding the magic scale but more about what you do with the material that you have, and THAT is what makes people like George Benson or Wes so amazing. You need to develop your basics for Jazz lines so that your solos sound better, and I cover some of the strongest concepts in this video.
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