Harmonic Progression

It is common knowledge that most jazz tunes tend to use harmonic progressions that are based on root movements of descending fifths. This progression is the strongest available in tonal music. We know that a tonal area can be defined most successfully through the use of the dominant-tonic or V-I progression which of course is based on a descending fifth root movement. If we precede the V chord with a diatonic chord whose root is a fifth above it we end up with the ii-V-I progression we all know and love. If we continue this pattern by preceding each chord with another a fifth above we end up with chord sequences that are very common in many jazz tunes. For example in the key of C Major:

G7 CMaj7 (V-I)

Dm7 G7 CMaj7 (ii-V-I). The fundamental building block of jazz standards.

Am7 Dm7 G7 CMaj7 (vi-ii-V-I). “All the Things You Are” uses this as its fundamental progression through various keys.

Em7 Am7 Dm7 G7 CMaj7 (iii-vi-ii-V-I) sometimes referred to as a “turnaround” because it usually appears at the end of the tune turning you around or sending you back to the beginning.

Bm7b5 Em7 Am7 Dm7 G7 CMaj7 (vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I). Less common as a stand-alone progression due to its rhythmic asymmetry.

FMaj7 Bm7b5 Em7 Am7 Dm7 G7 CMaj7 (IV-vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I). This is the complete cycle of fifths in the key of C. Notice that this contains one diminished fifth (F to B). The bridge to “Take Five” comes to mind as an example of this complete cycle progression.

We can, through permutation, start and end our progression anywhere within the cycle. For example, the progression Dm7 G7 CMaj7 FMaj7 Bm7b5 Em7 Am7 is very common in many tunes and is extremely common if we make one small modification: changing the Em7 to E7. This change from a minor seventh to a dominant seventh effectively moves the key area from C major to A minor (relative minor). “Autumn Leaves” is the best example of this as the entire tune is basically this progression. We can also refer to this new E7 chord as a secondary dominant. Since the true dominant in C major is G7, any other dominant that briefly moves use into a new key area is considered secondary. This concept is extremely important in all tonal music and is very important in jazz. I will discuss this in the next installment so please stay tuned!

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