Essential Progressions – 4 Sonny Rollins Tools to Tackle The V7 of V7

I can still remember the day I discovered how amazing the ii V7 chord progression could be. After struggling for years, It was as if a locked door finally opened and I was granted access to a secret society…

I finally saw what all the fuss over ii Vs was about and why they mattered so much…ii Vs became my primary improvisation tool – they were my hammer. But like the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I was so enamored with ii Vs that virtually my whole approach to playing centered around them. They literally were the core of how I improvised and anything that didn’t quite fit the ii V mold, well I did what anyone would do…I noodled around in the appropriate scales and faked it…all the while ignoring my inability to actually know what was truly going on in the chord changes.

And this became very apparent when I first encountered tunes that didn’t use the common ii V7 I formula – these weird tunes that I hadn’t seen before used a II dominant chord in place of the ii minor…

I was lost.

Now you wouldn’t think that such a small change would make such a big difference, but it certainly can.

Most people’s ears are so accustomed to hearing the standard ii V I, that a dominant chord in place of a minor ii chord sounds completely out of place.

But today, we’re going to change that…

Welcome to the V7 of V7

Welcome to V7 of V7

So why might it be difficult for us to hear and conceptualize a II7 dominant chord where we’re used to hearing and seeing a ii minor chord?

A lot of this difficulty has to do with the layers of abstraction necessary to understand a particular music theory concept…

For instance, In a regular ii V I, you have a logical progression born directly from major harmony that completely makes sense in terms of music theory.

There are no abstractions to deal with, no exceptions to the rules…it works exactly the way it’s supposed to. The ii minor of the key moves to the V7 of the key, and the V7 naturally resolves to the Tonic.

But not every musical chord progression or concept is so clear and easy to grasp as a ii V7 I. Sometimes there are levels of abstraction to understand and that’s okay, as long as we work towards understanding them rather than moving past them without fully conceptualizing why something works the way it does.

If you can’t hear and understand the WHY behind a chord progression, you don’t really know it

Most of the time, when you’re having trouble conceptualizing the why behind a chord progression, all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective and voila, the chords make perfect sense!

This new found perspective helps you hear the chord progression clearly and understand how to more effectively improvise over it.

So to deconstruct the nature of this dominant chord in place of the ii minor, let’s start with our ii V I

Now, let’s zoom in on the V7 to I part of the progression…

And let’s take a look at the how & why behind V7 moving to I by examining the voice leading.

The voice leading of the 3rd and 7th, moving from the V7 dominant chord to the Tonic major chord, resolves the tension within the dominant chord.

In other words, the tritone interval between the 3rd and 7th of the dominant chord we hear as tension in the context of the underlying key center…and this changes to a stable interval of a perfect 4th (or perfect 5th if you invert it) when we move from dominant to major.

But, what people often forget is that a dominant chord does NOT have to resolve to a major chord – the voice leading can just as easily move us to a minor chord, or even another dominant chord!

That’s right, the tension within a dominant chord can move not only to major or minor, but it can also move to the tension of another dominant chord.

And when you realize that dominant chords can move like this and are not restricted to resolving to I major, or even i minor, your entire understanding opens up.

You begin to realize how and why a dominant chord can lead you anywhere…

So, if we go back to the ii V I, what if we were to say…let’s get to the V7 dominant chord from another dominant chord, instead of moving to it from the ii minor….What might that look like?

Well, to conjure up the dominant chord that would move to the V7 chord, we can extrapolate the V7 of the V7 like this…

So you can see, the V7 of the V7 (F7), moves us perfectly to V7 (Bb7), and the V7 resolves to the tonic, Eb major.

With this new understanding, the V7 of V7 becomes a new entity, sound, and concept that helps you realize the how and why behind the chord changes.

But keep in mind that the V7 of V7 is frequently voiced by the chording instrument with a b5 /#11 in the chord structure…

As we study examples with the V7 of V7, we’ll just notate it as a standard dominant chord, so be aware that the chord voicings may include the b5 /#11 even when it’s not notated.

Okay, now that you have a good idea behind where the V7 of V7 comes from, let’s take a look at a timeless tune and jazz solo that uses this specific sound…

Sonny Rollins Solo – But Not For Me

The tune we’ll be talking about today, Gershwin’s But Not For Me, has been recorded by many jazz musicians.

But of course, the chord changes that most people play today were made popular by Miles Davis, which instead of starting with 4 bars of the tonic chord like the original, makes use of the V7 of V7. Take a look at the first 8 bars…

But Not For Me Jazz standard

Notice in this A Section that there are two places that use the V7 of V7, so as a student of jazz improvisation, this gives us a ton of opportunities to hear how our favorite players make their way through this progression.

One of my favorite players, and probably one of yours too, the great Sonny Rollins tackles these changes with ease, blowing endless perfect bebop lines that command the harmony, melody, and rhythm…

The presence of the V7 of V7 doesn’t phase him in the slightest. He sounds as if he were playing over any other progression, just another day at the office, playing like a boss.

So today, we’ll dig into Sonny’s playing on But Not For Me and figure out what makes his lines work so well over the V7 of V7.

We’ll reveal some of his best jazz improvisation techniques over the tricky V7 of V7 progression, as well as the intricate thinking behind his genius. Get ready because this Sonny Rollins solo is practically a masterclass in how to approach the dozens of tunes that use the unique V7 of V7 sound.

Classic Tonic & V7 Thinking

So much of the time when we’re transcribing and analyzing solos, the chord changes of the tune dictate how we interpret the lines…

But more often than not, the soloist is thinking in a way that is not completely captured by the chord symbols.

For example, Sonny’s opening line to his first chorus goes like this…

Now, most people would immediately compare each note to the chord symbol and try to determine what particular scale Sonny is applying to the chord.

Sonny Rollins Line

But would this type of thinking really create the line he’s playing?

Not really…In fact, no matter how hard you try, thinking in terms of scales is not going to create this line, and even thinking about specific chord tones here wouldn’t help you that much because the way Sonny is thinking has more to do with the tonic key center than it does with the specific chords at this point.

This is what I like to call simple Tonic & V7 thinking and you see it everywhere in the jazz solos of the masters – rather than playing over each chord, you focus on using simple tonic major triadic or melodic statements, interspersed with V7 transitions.

This way you get a combination of strong melodic structures, with forward momentum.

When you look at Sonny’s line from this angle, you’ll realize he’s thinking much simpler than you can imagine: I V7 I. That’s it. And you see this little trick everywhere, but aspiring jazz improvisers that are deep into transcribing often miss that their hero is thinking 10 times simpler than their analysis shows.

As you can see, this “I V7 I” type of thinking works great over the A Section of But Not For Me, flowing right over the V7 of V7…so much so that the second time around, at the start of the second chorus Sonny uses this tool again, but this time he primarily relies on the tonic triad.

Can it get any simpler?

When you find yourself reaching for the stars and trying to apply every complex jazz improvisation concept you can possibly think of in an attempt to solve a musical problem, relax and return the simplest ideas you know – tonic triads and hints at the V7 sound.

Complex does not equal good….Get in the habit of applying this tonic & V7 thinking and you’ll have a time-tested solid technique at your disposal for many musical situations.

Leading into V7 Tension & The related ii minor

When we encounter a sequence of chords that are giving us trouble, our first instinct is to try to play each chord, give them equal weight, and treat each chord in the sequence as a single entity…

But you don’t have to give each chord equal weight. You can instead focus on one part of the progression and use the other chords to lead there.

The next technique we’re going to look at uses this idea. Rather than treating the V7 of V7 with equal importance as the V7 chord, we’ll look at playing something that leads into what you want to play on the V7 chord.

Sonny uses this tactic often, allowing him to focus on targeting a specific chord-tone or tension on the V7 chord.

Can you hear how he uses notes over the F7 to enclose a target note, the #9, of the Bb7 chord?

This is a super effective and easy to use technique that you can implement over the V7 of V7, simply play some sort of enclosure or approach type material leading into a tension on the V7 chord.

Sonny uses the #9, but you could just as easily adjust Sonny’s line and target the b9 or any other altered tone, like this…

Sonny Line 2 C

Now take a look at this next line where Sonny does almost the same thing, leading into the #9, but instead of a simple enclosure, he adds material to the beginning of the line that comes from the related ii minor.

The related ii minor (C minor in this case) is the ii minor chord that would be paired with the dominant chord in a ii V. I like to think of this as a ii V pair. Any time you have a V7 chord, you can sub it out for its related ii minor and vice versa.

You’ll notice that for most of the lines from here on out, Sonny uses the related ii minor over the V7 of V7. This is a crucial technique that’s in every great improviser’s arsenal.

Do yourself a favor and add it to yours asap!

Using ii V7s & The Minor to Minor Concept

Now we’ll get into another common technique that’s quite easy to integrate into your playing that can have a dramatic effect: Using a ii V over the V7 chord.

Every great player uses this concept.

Using ii Vs over dominant chords is core to the bebop language, creating forward momentum and melodic motion

Can you hear the ii V Sonny uses in this line?

He’s using the related ii minor over the V7 of V7, and a ii V over the V7 chord, which makes for a great way to approach this progression as a whole.

Any time you have a dominant chord, you can always use the ii V, but it’s especially useful in the situations where you’re having difficulty approaching a progression.

For some reason, when we’re having issues playing over or thinking about a particular set of chords, rather than thinking about them differently, we tend to loop a play along over and over, thinking that with more attempts, we’ll magically figure it out.

But usually more attempts approached in the same way equals more frustration, so instead do these two things:

  1. SLOW things down – Get rid of the play along, or slow it down in The Transcribe App. You have to bring the tempo to a crawl to hear and learn to play over tricky progressions
  2. Think in a NEW way – The tools we’re talking about today give you new ways to think. A small shift in the way you think has a tremendous impact on how you play.

Remember, there are countless ways to think about progressions, so don’t be stuck in a single one. You have to take what you’re learning and be creative!

For instance, ii V thinking over dominant chords is hugely advantageous, but it also brings up yet another way to approach these chords – the minor to minor concept.

Do you recall that any V7 chord can be substituted for its related ii minor chord? Well, you can forget about the dominant chords all together and now you’ve got a minor chord moving to another minor chord.

This minor way of thinking can completely change what you play over this progression because thinking in terms of minor instead of dominant will cause you to draw from different language than you’re used to.

Little shifts in perspective like this will help you remove mental roadblocks and discover new pathways for your creativity to flow. Always take your time with chord changes that give you trouble and find new ways to think about them.

The Power of Flat ii minor

Do you ever listen to your favorite players and hear them play something in such an effortless way, that it makes you stop and wonder how it’s possible?

When I listen to Sonny Rollins use altered dominant language, this is my reaction.

You see when most of us try to use tension and alterations in our lines, we depend on the altered scale, but rather than sounding like a strong flowing melodic idea, it comes off as stiff and technical, like we’re forcing a word into our vocabulary that doesn’t really fit…

But when Sonny adds altered tensions to his lines, it doesn’t sound like theory or scales, just pure melodicism. And this comes from the powerful dominant tools he has at his disposal and how he combines them.

Listening to this line, you’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about. It doesn’t sound like theory or math – it sounds like music!

So what kind of concepts can we grab from Sonny so we can emulate this ease in our playing?

The bii minor – The minor triad a half step up from the root of the dominant chord is a huge help in understanding how to work these tensions into our playing.

Notice here how he moves from the related ii minor of the V7 of V7 chord, into the bii minor over the V7 chord. This works so well because of the half step relationship between these, making for a strong and smooth transition that’s easily communicated to the listener.

It’s not just a single improvisation technique, but how Sonny combines them that makes him sound great

You’ve probably used a lot of the techniques we’re talking about today before, but realize that it’s the combination of them over the V7 of V7 moving to the V7 and resolving to the Tonic, the specific context and application, that helps you play over a tricky progression.

And that’s what you have to do…work on combining everything we’re talking about today until something clicks for you, and a progression that’s been tripping you up becomes clear.

Now, you don’t have to use the bii minor so overtly as Sonny does in the last line…you can just as easily weave it into a piece of the line, or even a piece of a measure as he does here…

Sonny moves from the related ii minor into the V7 chord, then plays a little language from the ii or the V7 (it’s difficult to say which approach he’s using, but remember you can use either), and then places his bii minor idea near the end of the bar.

THIS is what we’re talking about!! Use everything you have at your disposal, in your ear and fingers, to create your own approach to a progression. As you can see, the result is long flowing effortless bebop lines that weave through the harmony with power and direction.

Tools for the The V7 of V7

Your tools for V7-of-V7

Now you should have pretty good idea why the V7 of V7 works in place of the ii minor chord, where it comes from, and how it sounds.

If this little chord has ever given you trouble, or made you wonder why it was there, after today’s lesson you should have a new connection with it and a million different ways to play over it, like…

  1. Tonic & V7 thinking
  2. Leading into Tension from The Related Minor
  3. Using ii Vs & The Minor to Minor Concept
  4. Integrating the bii Minor with The Related Minor

And while we only went over 4 primary ways to approach the V7 of V7, the real freedom and flexibility begins when you start to combine everything you know, just like we saw Sonny do.

When you begin to mix and match all the approaches we talked about today you’ll have more than enough ways to think about the V7 of V7, allowing you to create smooth jazz lines that beautifully flow between the chord changes.

Let Sonny Rollins inspire you and have fun exploring the V7 of V7 with the infinite ways you can approach them!!