The ii V progression makes up the vast majority of chord changes within the jazz standard repertoire. Much of our success or failure as improvisors comes from being able to navigate this deceptively simple progression.
Learning how to play over ii Vs is actually much easier than you think. The mistake most people make is they try to play over them using theoretical knowledge instead of utilizing language and their ear. You’ll notice that in this article I won’t be talking about 7 to 3 resolutions, dorian & mixolydian scales, or anything in that vein.
These types of things are excellent points of theory to know, but in reality provide little help compared to the knowledge you’ll gleam from transcribing. Use theory to supplement what you learn from studying how the music sounds.
Get ii V language
Everything starts with a model. Observing a definitive way of how to do something.
Listen to one of your heroes on a tune you know the chord changes to. Take note of where all the ii Vs occur in the tune. Focus in on those areas and listen for a line that grabs your fancy. If you have a program like Transcribe, loop the line and listen to it carefully to make sure it’s something you genuinely like. Do not neglect how important this is.
Many people have been writing in lately about who they should transcribe, asking specifically for us to tell them what solos and what musicians they should transcribe. To be blunt, that’s like asking a stranger what you should do with the rest of your life.
No worries though. I used to ask many professionals similar questions, until I realized that only I could answer these for myself. Make your own decisions about what kind of player you want to become. What do you want to sound like?
Once you determine which solo you’re going to extract your ii Vs from, find two instances of a ii V: a one-measure and a two-measure. Then, go to the selected parts in the solo and learn each selected line 100% by ear. Aim to not write anything down until you figure out the entire phrase.
For example, I really like Dexter Gordon. I also happen to know that in Charlie Parker’s tune Confirmation, the ‘A’ section contains a bunch of one-measure ii Vs, and the bridge is made of two-measure ii Vs. So, I put the solo into Transcribe, find a one-measure ii V and a two measure ii V that I like, and transcribe both by ear.
Dexter Gordon One-measure ii V (@2:30 on the recording)
Dexter Gordon Two-measure ii V (@1:11 on the recording)
Notice both of these lines in a sense violate the standard wide-spread jazz theory model. In both lines, a non-chord tone is on the down beat (“A#” in the first and “G#” in the second). Understand that you would never just stumble upon these lines and that discovering them for yourself from a recording is the most direct route to understanding anything you desire.
Learn the ii Vs in all keys
Now that I’ve got my lines, I drill them in all keys so that “Ab- Db7” is just as easy as “D- G7”. If you do this, every ii V will be easy. No longer will you dread the less familiar keys, but instead welcome them.
Do this all by ear, never writing out the line in more than one key. At first, your mind may know how to navigate a line based upon what chord tones it contains, but gradually, you’ll think of these type of things less and less; the line will just be at your fingertips in all keys, ready for you to produce at will.
Use the ii Vs in tunes
I then want to integrate these lines into my playing, so I learn to use them on a tune. In the following example I’ve taken one of my Dexter ii Vs and put it over the bridge to All the Things You Are:
Use your options
Now that I’ve added this ii V to my arsenal, I need to learn to distort the line, as well as mix the ii V line with other concepts and ideas I already have spent time with. This is where you must apply your own creativity.
Plugging in lines is just a starting point. You can remove notes from the line, add some, change the rhythm, alter the 5th and 9th chord tones over the dominant chord, or combine the line with another line you know. These are just a few suggestions of the countless paths you could take from here.
Decide how you develop your language depending on how things sound to you.
If you work on ii Vs in the prescribed method presented, you will be confident in every ii V situation you encounter. Yes, it is a lot of hard work. Yes, you do have to be creative. But the actual process is much simpler than you’ve ever imagined. Now go get your lines and get going. With ii Vs making up over 90% of all the chords you’ll come across, you’ll be glad you did.