Playing Changes Part 5: More Diatonic Harmony

The Playing Changes series presents and expands on concepts from my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony published by CMA Press.

Index of Playing Changes articles

ii – V7 – I Progression

Diatonic harmony is the foundation of jazz standards through the bebop era. One of the most common chord progressions is jazz is ii–V–I.

IV and ii are the most common chords to precede a V–I cadence. Both chords have predominant function. Compare the following examples:

The two progressions shown sound remarkably similar, even though IV is a major triad and
ii is a minor triad. Notice IV and ii have two notes in common. Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” I–ii–V–I progression (See Playing Changes: Part 3).

Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” opens with a ii–V–I progression:


Circle of Fifths Progressions

Notice that in a ii–V–I progression, the root drops a perfect fifth from ii to V, and from V to I. Root motion in descending fifths (or ascending fourths) is one of the most common sequences in tonal music:

A smooth diatonic progression that follows this circle of fifths root motion is iii–vi–ii–V–I:

  • Play ii–V–I and iii–vi –ii–V–I progressions on the piano in several keys (eventually all 12)

Mellin and Wood’s “My One and Only Love” is another example of diatonic harmony in a jazz standard:

(The A7 chord in measure four is a secondary dominant, which will be covered in a future article.)

It’s important to remember that the tonic (scale degree one), names the scale, not the root of each chord. In these diatonic examples, the chord tones change, but they all come from the key of C major.

Playing Tunes

Chapter Four of The Living Jazz Tradition presents a walk-through of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife,” a song based on diatonic chords. Each walk-through presents four approaches for improvisation:

  1. Thematic Variation – embellishing the melody
  2. Horizontal – play by ear in the key center
  3. Vertical – arpeggio-based solo that outlines each chord
  4. Voice Leading – smooth melodic connections between chord tones as the harmony changes
Next in the series is “Playing Changes Part 6: Color Tones.”

Index of Playing Changes Articles

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