(Even more!) Jazz Chords and Chord Progressions Basics

The No Nonsense Guide to Tags and back door progressions in Jazz Harmony

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense Guide

This page hosts “straight to the point” answers to common questions about jazz chords (and harmony in general). No frills. Just plain in simple explanations of how chords work together and why.

Ever wondered about “two five’s” (ii-V), cycling, cadences and interpolation? Then read on!

While learning about jazz harmony here, some questions may arise. It’s ok! They are most likely answered somewhere on this very same page. If not, please contact me.

 

The No-Nonsense Guides to Jazz harmony :

-Part I : two-fives, cadences and roman numerals.

-Part II : secondary dominants, turnarounds, etc.

-Part III : tags, back door and altered dominants.

 

Compilation eBook

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense GuideBy general request from visitors: You can now get the three “No Nonsense” guides compiled in a practical PDF. It’s the exact same information as found on these 3 pages, but it’s formatted for better reading and printing. 19 pages of pure jazz chords craziness!

 

 

Jazz Chords Part III – Index

  • What is a tag ?
  • What is a back door progression ?
  • What are “chord tones” and “guide tones” ?
  • What are chord extensions ?
  • What is an altered dominant ?
  • What is an inversion ?

What is a tag ?

A tag is an added section of music that helps finalize the performance of standards or even jazz tunes. Usually referred to as “tag ending” by jazz musicians. In the classical world, the term coda is usually employed to describe this concept in the musical form.

The harmonic and melodic material found in common tags is drawn from the last few bars of music in the tune and is repetitive in nature. A good rhythm section can usually wing a decent tag by repeating the jazz chords of the last 2, 4 or even 8 bars or the song. This is how jazz musicians create a “coda” from thin air!

Here’s a common example of repeating the melody and the chords from the last few bars of music on a jazz standard. To end the tune “Days of Wine and Roses” in F, we proceed to repeat bars 29-30 three times before ending on the tonic chord. Like this:

jazz-chords-21

Sometimes, the tag can be used as a whole new section to improvise over before definitely ending a piece: the rhythm section loops the chord changes of the tag and the soloist keeps on improvising (until everyone feel it’s time to end the piece, on cue.) Here’s a common example of tagging just a chord progression to improvise over as an ending. To end the tune Stella By Starlight, we …

  • play bars 29-30 as usual
  • avoid the “I” chord in bar 31 and play “III” chord (Dm7) instead
  • play turnaround progression starting that “III” chord
  • improvise for a little (or for very long!) on the repeated turnaround
  • we cue the ending (on the tonic chord, Bb).

jazz-chords-22

In short, avoid the I, go to III instead and loop the III-VI II-V to take a solo over… Thus creating two II-V cells a whole step apart! A Montreal jazz veteran (saxophonist Dave Turner) once told me that at some jam sessions, this type of “III-VI II-V tagging thing” with multiple horn solos could last longer that an entire tune!

There exist many more ways to end tunes with tags or different codas. Investigate! See what you like.

What is a back door progression ?

Similar to ii-V-I cadence, the back door progression consists of the chords “IVm7 – bVII7 – I”.

In C major, it spells out: Fm7 – Bb7 – Cmaj7. Like in the first fews bars of the Tad Dameron tune Ladybird.

Some like to say it’s a “minor-third-up type of chord substitution”. Because Fm7 – Bb7 is a minor third higher than Dm7 – G7 (all in C major). Personally, I just like to call it a back door progression.This device is often used in standards progressions, jazz compositions, in arranging, in comping, in improvisation, etc.

A common example of using the back door in improvisation is to purposely superimpose the scales and arpeggios from the back door while the accompanying jazz chords are a normal ii-V-I. On a ii-V-I in C use the scales from Fm7 – Bb7, like this:

jazz-chords-23

Superimposition of this kind is reminiscent of the minor ii-V sound… as the Fm7 – Bb7 comes from the key of Eb major. C minor is the relative minor of Eb major! So the superimposed scales of Fm7 – Bb7 create a C natural minor sound. Please note that you can do the same while comping! (can you?)

But why name it the “back door” ? We call this progression a “back door” because it resolves to the I by coming from the bVII… which is a whole tone below. It’s coming “from behind” the tonic, hence the term back door.

What are “chord tones” and “guide tones” ?

Chord tones are the notes contained in a chord. For example, a C major 7th chord has the notes C, E, G and B (1-3-5-7) as its chord tones.

jazz-chords-24

Guide tones, on the other hand, are the third and seventh of a chord. For example, a C major 7th chord has the notes E and B (3-7) as its third and seventh. See improvisation lesson using guide-tones.

What are chord extensions ?

Simply put the chord tones above the 7th exclusively. Namely the 9th, the 11th and the 13th, even if they are altered. Jazz chords usually contain one or more extensions. For example, basic chord tones and extensions on a Cmaj7 chord:

jazz-chords-25

Exceptions:

7th’s are sometimes considered as an extension in classical theory.

Sometimes, the 6th is part of the chord (example, Cm6) and is NOT perceived as a 13th, therefore, the 6th (mis-interpreted as a 13th) is not always an extension.

Available extensions depends on chord families. See the Chord Extension Finder Technique here.

 

What is an altered dominant ?

Simply: A dominant 7th chord with one or more “tension notes”. As soon as one alteration exist in a dom 7th chord, we can use the term altered dominant to describe it. It’s common amongst jazz chords. The alterations are usually created by the presence of an altered (meaning a “sharp” or a “flat”) 5th and/or 9th. For example : G7(#9, b5) is an altered dominant chord.

Their exist many categories of altered dominants… as they come from many different harmonic “regions”: melodic minor modes, harmonic minor modes, other synthetic modes, the symmetrical diminished scale, etc. The available alterations for dominant chords are:

b9
#9

b5
#5

#11
b13

Here’s a series on article on dominant chords, sounds and scales… and here’s a chord chart for altered dominants.

Important note: The chord-scale that is called the altered scale (aka super locrian) is the one that supports a chord with ALL possible alterations. Meaning the b9, #9, b5 and #5.

What is an inversion ?

Jazz musicians generally employ the term inversion when talking about the voicing in which a chord is being sounded.

But, in a traditional (almost classical) sense, a chord inversion means to have another chord member in the bass voice instead of the root. For example, a C major triad contains the notes C, E and G.

Play with the “C” note in the bottom, we say it’s in root position …

When E, the third, is in the bass it’s called a first inversion …

When G, the fifth, is in the bass, it’s called a second inversion …

jazz-chords-26

For that kind of sound, jazzmen would use the symbols C, C/E and C/G respectively.

So, in jazz then … ?

In a jazz sense, the term inversion can merely mean the same notes disposed in a different way. For example, we would say that those are the four inversion of the C major 7th (in a drop-2 voicing):

jazz-chords-27

As you can see, the same four notes of C major 7th can be sounded in many different ways. And this applies to any or all jazz chords. But it seldom happens that jazz musicians use the nomenclature “second inversion” or “third inversion”. You can say that you know all of your inversions of this-or-that chord, but the role of the lowest note has been delegated to the bass instrument anyways.

You never hear that at a jam session: “Ok guitar player, play the C major 7th in bar 12 in the second inversion, okay?” … It doesn’t matter since the bass player takes the final decision in playing the lowest note anyways!!!

Final Note : you get the same amount of available inversions as the number of notes contained in any of the jazz chords (because all the notes present in the chord can be played as the lowest note.)

Hence, a three-note chord (triad) can be in root position, first inversion or second inversion…

… or a four-note chord (seventh chord) can be in root position, first, second or third inversion…

… or a five-note chord (a seventh chord with added 9th) can be in root position, first, second, third or fourth inversion…

Allright… I think we’re actually done here!

(-:

 

Compilation eBook

Jazz Chords: The No Nonsense GuideBy general request from visitors: You can now get the three “No Nonsense” guides compiled in a practical PDF. It’s the exact same information as found on these 3 pages, but it’s formatted for better reading and printing. 19 pages of pure jazz chords craziness!

 

 

Continue reading The No-Nonsense Guides to Jazz harmony:

-Part I : two-fives, cadences and roman numerals.

-Part II : secondary dominants, turnarounds, etc.

-Part III : tags, back door and altered dominants.

 

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