Jazz Progression Workout

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This month, we examine the dependable ii-V chord progression within the extended ii-V-iii-VI that you find in a traditional jazz turnaround. The following examples represent the progression in the key of G.


With a little training, we can all run up and down the scales or modes like bebop machines. (Heck, some players have made a career out of it!) For me, what makes a player stand out is how they choose to construct these lines differently. I like to challenge myself to resolve a standard bebop- type scale on an unexpected chord tone. In Ex. 1, I begin by walking up a diatonic C major scale (appropriate to the ii chord or A min). But rather than resolve to the B natural, I chose a Bb, which is the at 13 of the D. Surprise! Then in bar 4, there’s another natural-13 phrase answered by a flat-13 phrase. Surprise yourself with unexpected chord tones of your own.

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The layout of the piano and how the hands are placed on the keyboard makes it easy to arpeggiate chords as a method of improvisation. In Ex. 2 we explore this technique using a parallel pair of arpeggios in bar 4. Here, a B min arpeggio is followed by a Bb min arpeggio (a half step down), substituting for what would traditionally be an E7 chord. I think any parallel movement gives the listener a repeated idea to latch onto.

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Ex. 3 is fun. See if you can construct an interesting line by not jumping any more than a whole step. It’s more of a challenge than it seems and can make for some interesting, slinky lines. (Admittedly, I jump-started this exercise with a minor third. Oops!)

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There are many patterns with movement in minor thirds, or so-called “diminished licks.” These are fun to explore, as illustrated in Ex. 4. Try creating your own diminished patterns and see what you come up with.

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Ex. 5 may be reminiscent of a certain Bach invention you practiced in grade school. But rather than repeating it in a very square way, I displaced it over the bar line. Again, repeating and developing a motif gives the listener a journey to follow, and adding rhythmic variety increases tension.

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Jeff Babko is the keyboardist in the house band on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Babko’s latest release, Band of Other Brothers—City of Cranes, is out now. Find out more at jeffabko.com.