Just learn a few ii V licks in all keys, learn how to use them, and that’s jazz, right? Unfortunately not. ii Vs make up the bulk of chord progressions found in all western music from classical to pop music, hence, ii Vs are necessary to master. However, a common result from working on ii Vs a lot is something that sounds like a combination of noodling around and plugging in ii V licks.
We never want to sound like were noodling around, and we’d much prefer to sound spontaneous and interesting than uninspired and predictable.
When we finally decide to start devoting time to studying ii Vs, our ears open a ton and we get excited, as if we’ve found the key to unlock everything. Studying ii Vs does unlock a ton of mystery and will greatly help you improve as an improviser, but know that that this study is only part of the picture.
Getting stuck in ii V land
We all practice ii Vs. We practice lines over them, we practice freely improvising over them, and we try to figure out how to use any concept we’re working on over them, but to what end?
Somewhere in this mess of working on ii Vs, we lose track of the real goal: to sound musical. That’s right. To actually say something with what we’re playing. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
What happens when we get enthralled with ii Vs is that everything else falls to the wayside. The result: we have to wait until ii Vs occur in a tune to play our lines and concepts. So, basically we spend a lot of our solo meandering, and then when a ii V arrives, we play over it in a fairly boxy and predictable way with the stuff we’ve practiced.
ii Vs are just part of the whole. Yes, they are a very very important part of the whole, but you must balance your ii V study by working on other parts of the whole.
Focus on non ii V language
One of the major pitfalls in many people’s playing is that they spend little time studying language that’s not a ii V.
Believe it or not, the most commonly overlooked chord is the major chord. For some reason, perhaps because we perceive them as easy, we think we can get away with knowing the bare minimum amount of knowledge to play successfully over major chords.
What’s the bare minimum amount of knowledge? The bare minimum amount of knowledge is knowing the chord tones and the scale of any given chord. Yes, that’s the least you should know. Many books, teachers, and friends will claim that this is what you need to know, but really it’s the absolute bare minimum.
Like we say all the time, what you really need is a firm understanding of a chord through the study of language. And this language is actually most easily gained for ii V situations because we’re all familiar with the idea of a ii V line, so learning lines for this harmonic situation is second nature, however, chords like “major” need just as much attention.
A chord and scale is not enough. It’s just barely enough to play. I remember one day having trouble over a tune and Rich Perry stopped me and said, “You sound fine in the ii V spots, but everywhere else is not nearly as good.” I was stuck in ii V land and it showed.
It doesn’t seem natural; the ii Vs are the more difficult sections as compared to the major chord or minor chord spots, but it’s this very perception, that they’re easy, that causes us to gloss over them…
Then Rich asked me, “A Major chord. What you got.” I didn’t know how to respond. Should I arrpegiate the chord or play the scale? Should I try to improvise over it? I was clueless. Put me over a ii V, and I could give you a bunch of lines, but here I was completely stumped over a simple major chord. Stumped over the easy stuff. Stuck in ii V land.
You need language for every chord and it should be just as accessible as your ii Vs. If it’s not, any ii V you play over will stick out because you’ll flow nicely over them and then go back to meandering aimlessly when you’re not playing over them.
This is the test to do on yourself with all the other harmonic situations you want to play over: “Major chords. What you got.” If you don’t have several pieces of language that you can use as a melodic springboard for your creativity, it’s time to transcribe some and make them your own.
Think through this test with yourself with your instrument in your hands and see what you have at your fingertips. You may be surprised that the “easy” stuff isn’t so easy.
Lengthen those note values
Another problem with the way we commonly practice ii Vs is all the eighth notes. We fill up every ounce of space with running eighth notes in our practice and what comes out during performance? Eighth notes.
Now, nothing against eighth notes. They’re essential and of prime importance, just like ii Vs, but just as you must balance your ii V language with the practice and internalization of language of equal value for other harmonic situations, you must learn to approach ii Vs in other ways than a constant stream of eighth notes.
Why do many of our ii V lines consist of only eight notes? When we practice language, it’s out of context of a complete solo and we tend to focus on lines that are full of motion, hence, a lot of eighth notes. The problem: when we use them in context, we always play a bunch of eighth notes over a ii V. This is the second part of being stuck in ii V land (the first is meandering over chords until you get to ii Vs to really play a line of value).
The cure to this eighth note dilemma is simple in theory, but difficult in practice. The goal is to be able to switch from playing many eighth notes over ii Vs, to playing a line with longer note values and mixed rhythms. Both of these perspectives are necessary; that’s why you need to be able to switch between them.
By playing with longer note values, mixed rhythms, and perhaps over the bar line phrasing, you disguise the harmonic motion of the ii V rather than directly bringing it to the foreground of the music as eighth-note lines do.
This is something you hear a lot in all the best players. Even guys like Coltrane who play a lot of eighth notes still occasionally play in this less eighth note oriented way over ii Vs every few choruses or so to mix it up and add balance to their solo.
keep working on your ii Vs. Never stop. But don’t let the constant eight-note ii V line consume you. Focus some of your time on other chords and harmonic situations, making sure you have language and a firm understanding of the other things you may encounter in your harmonic journeys.
Constantly ask yourself what knowledge you have to draw from for the non ii V situations to ensure the “easy” chords keep up with your knowledge of ii Vs.
Then, learn to approach ii Vs without playing a constant stream of eighth notes, disguising the harmony to provide contrast in your solo. Just like playing over major chords, this should be easier because it’s less complex, but again, things that we haven’t worked on, no matter how simple remain a mystery.
ii Vs are extremely important, but so is everything else. If you find yourself wandering during a solo except when you encounter a ii V, or if you seem to be always approaching your ii Vs the same way, you know you’re getting stuck in ii V land. It’s okay to be there; it’s almost essential at some point in your development because ii Vs are that important.
Just know that no matter how great you get at playing over ii Vs, that there’s many other things to focus on to keep everything in balance. Use the techniques presented in this article and you can be sure that not only will you never be noodling around during your solo, but that the way you approach ii Vs will fit beautifully and musically into the rest of your musical concept.