In this guide, I'll show you how to understand and write your own jazz-influenced chord progressions. The most frequently used progression in jazz composition is called the ii - V - I cadence. My last harmony article tackled Chromatic Chords, and I outlined how to use out-of-key chords to add some spice to your own writing, and in that tutorial, I mostly used roman numeral based chords to relate the chromatic chords to the root chord. In this article, I’ll look at chromatic chords that veer further away from the home chord, and journey through jazz-related harmonic territory. This type of cadence guided composition can sound refreshing in comparison to a lot of modern 4-chord pop songs.
"Someone wrote this song before
And I could tell you where it's from
The 4736251 to put my mind at ease"
Homage (Mild High Club)
The V Chord
The V chord is an important building block in harmony; it creates a harmonic pull back to the root, or I chord. The 12-bar-blues progression used so often in blues and rock ’n’ roll relies on this V - I relationship to create tension at the end of every cycle. When the V chord is a dominant seventh chord (R 3 5 b7), the tension is even more pronounced.
The ii-V-I Sequence
Adding a ii chord before the V chord creates a ii - V sequence, which draws out the tension and is the backbone of a lot of jazz standards. The added ii chord adds some tonalities to the sequence, useful for the improvisation that plays a big part of jazz. It also adds more movement and interest than just a standard V chord. The ii - V sequence can replace any V chord. You can hear a ii - V - I in the With a Little Help From My Friends line "Would you stand up and walk out on me."
When the ii-V-I sequence ends in a minor I chord, the ii chord will be a minor seventh flat five chord. That’s a pretty long name, but all it means is that it’s a minor seventh chord (E G B D) but with a flatten 5th (E G Bb D). A common sequence is a major ii - V - I followed by a minor ii - V - I in the relative minor key, which you can hear in songs like Autumn Leaves or Copacabana. Minor ii-V-I's tend to give off a latin vibe when used on their own.
You can have a V chord that resolves to another V chord, which can create an interesting harmonic twist. This V-of-a-V chord is a II7 chord, which resolves to the V, which can then resolve to the root chord. Every diatonic chord can have a secondary dominant chord resolve to it, and The Beatles loved using this trick, such as in In My Life.
Adding a seperate ii - V sequence to resolve into the original, diatonic ii - V creates a iii - VI - ii - V - I sequence, which extends the tension of the cadence over 4 chords. Adding another ii - V creates a iv - VII -iii - VI - ii -V - I sequence (as referenced in the Homage lyrics at the top of this article!). The longer sequence starts out of key, but works because it's just a series of modulations leading back to the root chord. When stacking ii-V sequences like this, m7b5 chords aren't typically used.
An advanced jazz harmonic technique is to substitute a dominant seventh chord with another chord that is a tritone interval (6 semitones) away. For example, an F7 chord can be swapped with a B7 chord. The theory behind this swap is that the two chords share the 3rd and 7th intervals, so they harmonically work the same, but the sound is darker and more 'outside'. Swapping with another dominant chord is the most common approach, however, you’ll also hear minor sevenths used for the substitution. Another reason this works is you can get chromatic root movement, as Cm7 | F7 | Bb becomes Cm7 | B7 | Bb.
Cadences in Music
Homage, by Mild High Club, is built around a very jazz-influenced progression, almost reminiscent of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves. It is in the key of F and opens with a ii-V-I (Gm7 | C7 | Fmaj7). The second half of the progression is a minor ii-V-I in Dm, the relative minor key of F. The sequence ends on a Dm | D7 turnaround, with the D7 acting as V chord to lead back to the Gm7 that starts the progression.
Every Single Thing, by HOMESHAKE has a jazzy sounding chord sequence; it is in the key of A and has two different V chords, E9, the diatonic V chord of A, and C#7, which is the V chord of F#m7, thus the C#7 is a secondary dominant chord.
The jazz-influenced group BadBadNotGood's And That Too has a modulating sequence at 0:33. The song is in the key of B, and the first two chords are D#m7 and C#m7, which in B are the iii and ii chords. The Cm7 chord that follows is an example of a tritone substitution, the chromatic transition works, and sounds so satisfying, because the Cm7 chord functions as a substitution for F#7, the V chord of the following Bmaj7.
Skiptracing, by Mild High Club, utilises ii-V sequences with tritone substitutions. The piece is in the key of B major, and the second chord immediately modulates to the IV chord, which is Emaj7, a secondary dominant chord. There is then a IV | IVm sequence, a popular chromatic chord that I outlined in my Chromatic Chords article.
The next sequence is D#m7 | D7 | C#m7 | C. The D7 chord is a tritone substitution for G#7, which resolves to the following C#m7, and the ending C7 is a substitution for F#7, which leads back to the B chord at the top of the progression. This chromatic descending sequence is a classic in jazz music and can be heard in versions of Autumn Leaves.
Thanks for reading! If you're confused and have any questions then ask away in the comments section. Flypaper has a great article discussing the lack of cadences in modern pop music: Where Have All the V Chords Gone? The Decline of ‘Functional’ Harmony in Pop. If you want to explore jazz chord progressions further then The Real Book is the best place to find chord progressions from jazz standards.