Staffay - Comprehensive Jazz Theory SI Lesson

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Comprehensive Jazz Theory - Introduction, Backcycling and the "Parker Blues"

Lesson by Staffay


In my mid-teens my father tried to persuade me to listen to jazz - which was a quite hopeless intent since I was really into Eddie Van Halen, Deep Purple and hard-rock stuff. But some years later a heard a jazz-rock album by the well-known Swedish guitar player Jan Schaffer, where he plays a solo that totally knocked me off. It wasn't that fast, rather the kind of phrasing he was using, that interested me. My father had some records with Rune Gustafsson (another weell-known jazz-player in Sweden) were Schaffer also was present, and I realized where this kind of phrasing and strange notes came from. It was just pure jazz. (even that some people don't like the term)

I started to listen to players like Jim Hall, Joe Pass etc. and recorded concerts from the radio. (I still have one with John Scofield on trio, which I didn't understand a thing about back then) I was also picking up Pat Metheny's legendary record with Jaco Pastorius, and some others - but still I didn't get it. What were they playing, and why were they playing these notes with a feel that was completely odd to me? Back then, it was nearly impossible to get any books on the topic, but I managed to get my hands on one by Joe Pass, which I have never seen since then... I also started to transcribe from records and was reading some jazz theory and studied chord-progressions mostly on the piano - since that is more natural in my case. Later I played a lot of modern/classic jazz in different settings, but was forced to commercial music in order to pay the bills. With this and upcoming articles I want to share some of my knowledge about this wonderful kind of music - and even though Im not playing it myself rather than occasionally these days - I hope that it will be inspiring for some of You to read. I will start on an intermediate level and then progress to some very advanced stuff coming up in forthcoming articles. (at least I believe so) So let's start!

The three versions on blues in a jazz contest

In the beginning there was blues - just those three chords in 12 bars we all know. Jazz players early made their own version that has a more varied style of changing the chords, which is often referred to as a "jazz-blues". Basically there is a sub-dominant added in the beginning as well as some dominant substitutions and a "turnaround" at the end. (see below)

In early jazz the players just improvised over the blues scale, rhythmic approaches and riffs and the notes found in some bluesy themes rather than use a more thinking approach, eg. use specific scales for specific chords. Later, musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Bud Powell developed the Be-Bop approach, which consists of a more chordal approach in the improvisations - playing chord notes and lead-in notes to those as well as some scale-runs. Also the chromatism played a major role in their improvisations. But in order to take advantage of this "new" style of playing, they probably felt that the regular chord-progressions were a little too simple as a background for their improvisations, and they developed a system for chord embellishment known as "Backcycling". (at least its the term I use)

Backcycling is based on the fact that You can actually replace one bar in a static chord-progression with the dominant to that chord. Then the dominant itself can be replaced by the dominant to the dominant and so on. This will give us the famous "turnaround" that goes like this in the key of F: F - D7 - Gm7 - C7
Since D7 is dominant to Gm7 and Gm7 is a dominant to C7 (not really, since its a minor chord), we are actually "cycling back" to the root, which is our destination.

Below are three versions of blues in a jazz context that show how the progression has developed:


|F7 | | | |Bb7 | | F7 | |C7 |Bb7 |F7 |C7 |


|F7 |Bb7 |F7 | |Bb7 |(Bdim) | F7 |D7 |Gm7 |C7 |F7 D7 |Gm7 C7 |

The "Parker-blues"

|Fmaj7 |Em7b5 A7 |Dm7 G7 |Cm7 F7 |Bb7 |Bbm7 Eb7|Am7 D7 |Abm7 Db7|Gm7 |C7 |F7 D7 |Gm7 C7 |

Please note that the dominants that lead to a major chord can be "coloured" with 9'ths, 13'ths and the dominants that lead to a minor chord may be "coloured" with b9, #9, #5 etc. (Also there are options that refer to quartal harmony, but that will be discussed in another lesson)

Charlie Parker took this approach to its limit in songs like "Blues for Alice", "Confirmation" and others. What he did was back-cycling from the second bar of the blues all the way to the sub-dominant of the blues progression. From there he made a chromatically movement back to the root and ends up in a turnaround. (see fig.) Even this chromatic movement can be explained theoretically with the dominant substitution rule as the following applies: Every dominant can be replaced by its flatted fifth - eg. a C7 may be replaced by a Gb7, and a F7 may be replace by a B7. Why? Since the notes in a C7#5 will be exactly the same as a Gb9, except for the root, this is just logical. So the progression from the subdominant goes like this: Bb minor is dominant of Eb7 (making it a II-V btw.) - that leads to Am7 that leads to D9 - that leads to Abm7 and Db9 - that leads to Gm7 and C9 and then finally the root with the turnaround. Parker also made the first chord a major chord instead of a minor 7 and the whole progression in the beginning until the sub-dominant is harmonized over the F major scale, even though some notes may stick out.


So how do this apply in terms of improvisation? I will take some examples here based on different approaches found in other players styles.

The first one here is an excerpt from an early John Scofield solo that just shows the beauty of be-bop lines combined with his legato and unique phrasing style:


By analyzing this example we can see that all is pure be-bop in the terms of playing broken chords over the changes. In the first part all dominants are "minor" -ones, eg. they have a minor "colour" that leads to a minor root. (b9,#9,#5) John Scofield also assumes that when he plays, and plays broken b9 -chords, which applies to the diminished scale of the dominant chord. The rest of the solo is pretty straight-forward and implies broken minor9's all the way in different forms.

The second example is an excerpt from Miles Davis record "Walkin" from the 50's, and is interesting in the fact that Miles never was a be-bop player in the same fashion as Parker & Gillespie. He rather played on scales than relied on the broken-chord concept. Also, his kind of "flow" in his playing was later adopted by many modern jazz players. Please note that this example is 8 bars, Parker re-wrote the blues progression a little bit and added a bridge to compose these classical be-bop tune.


If we use Miles approach to the "Parker-blues" progression above, it simply fits playing the whole progression with a major F-scale and emphasize some notes that are out of of the scale at the right spots. However, we must step out of F-major when playing over Bbm7 / Eb7 and Abm7 / Db7 which will be II-V's to Abmaj7 and Gbmaj7. In terms of altering the F-major scale, Miles uses the minor 7 as well as the sharp 5 in a chromatic approach which is very useful and can be heard amongst the most jazz-players. This also applies to F-majors relative - the D-minor chord - and when improvising over a static D-minor chord these phrases will sound just great!

The third example is by Michael Brecker played on a record with Will Lee called "Bird House". Michael Brecker uses a more rhythmic approach and a more modern sounding tonal touch.


In the first bars of the solo Michael picks up notes from the theme, and then in the fourth bar comes a sixteenth-note phrase that begins in C-minor but ends up in a half/whole -tone scale. (see further notes) In the 7'th and 8'th bar Michael plays over Gb7 rather than C7, which is implied by a Gb mixolydian scale. (and broken Gb7)

The next chorus begins with a beautiful repetetive phrase that targets Bb7. He follows the chord movements and uses mostly chord tones. On the following Bb7 he plays a mixolydian scale with a minor 6'th, which is an implementation of the melodic minor scale on a 7'th chord. Further on we have a diminished phrase that lands on pure chord notes in the last two bars. Other points of interest is that he several times plays "on" the beat to emphasize rhythm - in contrast to the old way of playing jazz, in which the "off" -beat are mostly emphasized. He doesn't either play in a "linear" -approach, in the meaning that large intervals are used. What stands clearly out is that he knows exactly what he's doin here.

The last example is one that I put together myself to show some use of pentatonics and some Pat Metheny -like chromatism to tackle this chord progression. Please note that this example doesn't deal with rhythm - rather a tonal approach in order to show the thinking here.


In the first two bars, there is a classic Pat Metheny -phrase. It follows in the third bar by D-minor pentatonic and Bb-minor pentatonic on the G7 chord. The reason that Bb-minor pentatonic can be played over a G7, is that if a melodic minor substitution is used on G7 - it will give us Ab melodic minor, and if You build a pentatonic minor scale on Ab melodic minor it will be Bb-minor pentatonic. Same applies to bar 4 where the phrase is simply repeated. In bar six there are Bb-minor pentatonic and a Bb minor pentatonic with the 5'th replaced by the 6'th. (commonly used by Robben Ford on the IV chord in blues progressions). In the 7'th its simply A-minor pentatonic. The same chromatic phrase as in bar 1 is used for Abm7 / Db7 but here it begins at the 9'th of the Abm7 and leads in to the Gm7 in the next bar. In bar 9 a broken Gm7 is played and in bar 10 Db melodic minor is used. (a very common phrase in modern jazz) The last bars consists of chord tones and a Scofield-like string skipping pattern that treats the Gm7 / C7 as one bar of C7#9#5 - which is Db minor melodic respectively.

Tips: To find the minor pentatonic scale that applies to an altered 7'th chord - think a third above, eg. If the chord is C7#9#5, You may think Eb-minor pentatonic. Or alternatively You can say that You will play the minor pentatonic 1 whole Step behind the root, which may be easier in some cases.

To sum up

These examples show four different ways to handle one of the most common chord-progressions in jazz. The easiest way would be to use Miles approach and is a good starting point if You haven't played this before. (see above) I suggest playing around with rhythm in the phrasing since the notes here may be of less importance if there is a strong rhythmic approach as we can see in the Michael Brecker example. You might be confused of the embellishments in the examples, so if there is any questions, just leave a note here and I will answer right back.

The examples referred to is taken from:
John Scofield - own recording made in Copenhagen early 80'ths
Michael Brecker - "Confirmation", Will Lee "Birdhouse"
Miles Davis - "Confirmation", Miles Davis "Walkin"

In the very first bars I really play the "Superimposing pentatonics" -example.
In the third chorus the "Scofield" -example can be heard.
Otherwise most of the things played are based on the theory's above, with some few exceptions.

Chord progression for backing tracks (Confirmation)
The form is AABA:

|Fmaj7 |Em7b5 A7 |Dm7 G7 |Cm7 F7 |Bb7 |Am7b5 D7b9|G7 |Gm7 C7 |
|Fmaj7 |Em7b5 A7 |Dm7 G7 |Cm7 F7 |Bb7 |Am7b5 D7b9|Gm7 C7 |Fmaj7 |
Bridge: |Cm7 |F7 |Bbmaj7 |Bbmaj7 |Ebm7 |Ab7 |Dbmaj7 |Gm7 C7 |
|Fmaj7 |Em7b5 A7 |Dm7 G7 |Cm7 F7 |Bb7 |Am7b5 D7b9|Gm7 C7 |Fmaj7 |


ConfBacking_140.mp3 ( 8.52MB )
ConfBacking_180.mp3 ( 6.75MB )
ConfBacking_220.mp3 ( 5.52MB )

Lesson by Staffay