This week we are talking about minor II-V’s, and more specifically, how to deal with them harmonically. They require quite a bit more finesse then a major II-V for a few reasons. I know there is a lot of information out there about minor II-V’s and how you should develop a grasp of the 3 melodic minor scales that fit each chord in the progression, and harmonic minor this and harmonic minor that. I will not debate which of these scalar approaches works better, that is for your own ears to decide. The harmonic minor scale does give us some options over the progression, and it is imperative that an improviser understands the relationship between the melodic minor scale and each of the chords in the minor II-V progression. That being said, if you’ve experimented with these approaches there is a high likelihood that you’ve said to yourself, “wow, I cannot make this sound good.”
So, here we have it, what do I do with these dastardly minor II-V’s? Let’s be real, you’ve got to have vocabulary that fits this progression. There is no way to avoid that. If you are trying to find a shortcut, there isn’t one. I quickly recognize students who are trying to cut corners by how they approach minor II-V’s, same can be said when I’m on the bandstand.
First off, I want to hear some specific notes. On the minor7(b5) chord we’ve got to hit the third and the b5 (bonus points for the 11th). That’s the sound of the chord. If you get a 7-3 resolution in there you’ve hit the 7th and have perfectly walked the chord into the V7(b9). Moving from a clearly defined minor7(b5) to the third of a V7 chord is a striking sound that is exactly what we want to hear. The b9, natural 9 debate on a minor7(b5) chord is really a matter of context, which I discuss a little more in the linked video. But we can achieve these sounds in a number of ways with ideas you probably already know.
Let’s find a key and get specific. C minor…GO! Our II chord is Dmin7(b5). The b5 is Ab, the third is F, and the 7th is C. Our V7(b9) chord is G7(b9), the third is a B. Rewind…F, Ab, and C? Isn’t that an F minor triad? Well that should stir your curiosity a little bit. The 7-3 resolution in this key is a C-B relationship that gets me out of that triad by half step to the V7(b9) chord. A nice little diminished arpeggio from that B (B-D-F-Ab) scores me a sweet b9 on the G7 chord and I’m now just a half step away from a G, the 5 of C minor. A super simple harmonic approach that we want to hear (in our minds ear) whenever we get to a minor II-V.
Back to vocabulary…yeah…that stuff. We have to LISTEN to jazz musicians, not just hear them. Listen to the greats and hear how that approach improvisation. Listen to the overall arch of the solo, listen to the articulation, listen to the tone, listen to the interaction, and listen to licks, lines, and ideas. I will guarantee that you will hear musicians play the same stuff in different places (cough, GRANT GREEN, cough…excuse me). Check out Wes Montgomery on Days of Wine and Roses and Four on Six (Smokin’ at the Half Note). Hint: the lick is even in the same key! This is vocabulary. And we need these ideas in our playing to really begin saying something.
The challenge in this post is for you to transcribe Grant Green on What Is This Thing Called Love and check out how often he gets to these sounds with vocabulary. You’ll notice a few things. First, he uses chromatic II-V’s and diminished ideas to break up the monotony of constantly playing over the minor7(b5) chord. (You don’t necessarily have to play that iimin7(b5) chord if you’re making a strong case over the V7(b9). That b9 also happens to be the b5 of the related iimin7(b5) chord.) Second, check out how often he gets to the b5 and 3rd of the minor7(b5) chord and the 3rd and b9 of the V7(b9) chord.
I’ve posted a freebie video on minor II-V’s on my YouTube channel this week for you to check out. It’s a little more in depth discussion of this same topic and it is from my Grant Green course on Musiclessons.com where in the following videos I talk about Grant Green ideas from other solos and how we can work those into our own playing.