We’re all familiar with the standard ii-V-I progression, which plays such a central role in jazz harmony. At some point we all learn about the variant called the tritone substitution, where a Dm7-G7 sequence resolves not to the conventional Cmaj but instead to Fmaj. Another variant, which I presented in a previous post is called the “Backdoor ii-V” progression, in which Dm7-G7 resolves to Amaj. This time we consider yet another: one that, as far as I know, has no name. In it, Dm7-G7 resolves chromatically upward to Amaj.
This sequence isn’t quite as ubiquitous as the others, but it is still pretty common. If you get to know what it sounds like, you’ll recognize it frequently. Notice it, for starters, in bars 2-3 of the melody of I Remember You (Bm7→E7→Fmaj7). Play that for yourself a few times. Then see if you can hear where it appears in these songs:
- Groovin’ High (same changes as Whispering)
- There Will Never Be Another You
- I Remember You
- The Song is You
- Almost like Being in Love
- Like Someone in Love
- It Could Happen to You
- But Beautiful
- You Do Something to Me
- On a Slow Boat to China
Observe how often in these songs the melody note held over the sequence is the leading tone of the tonic—that is, a B if the sequence is 7→B7→Cmaj. This note, the major third of the G7 chord, is perhaps the most obvious note choice to lead to C major (hence the name leading tone)… but by using m7-B7 instead of G7, the B becomes the eleven of a m7 chord—an elegant and sublime sound.m
The Role of the Common Tone Diminished
So… why does this chord sequence work? In many of the cases, the dominant chord that moves up a semitone to resolve to the root can be seen as a common tone diminished chord. A common tone diminished chord (CTD) is a diminished chord that resolves to a major chord whose root is one of the diminished chord tones. For instance, listen to the first two chords of the song “Spring Is Here” (not the verse of the song but the better-known chorus):
The Common Tone Diminished Chord in “Spring is Here”
This is what you are hearing:
But many of the jazz standards that we play with ii-V sequences were originally written with CTD instead. Listen, for instance, to the original Jimmy Dorsey recording of “I Remember You”. The chord changes are Gmaj7 | G°7 | Gmaj7. These days, most players would play 7 or m7–7 instead of the G°7. The 7 is a very natural substitution for G°7, since a 79 is the same as a G°7 over an root. That is, the G°7 chord tones make up the 9, 3, 5 and m7 of the 7. And, as we noted above, so often the melody note over the G°7 is an .
For a similar example, listen to the original recording of You Do Something To Me.
In fact, we can take many of the tunes listed above and replace #ivm7→VII7→I with i°7→I for a variation that sounds a bit more old-fashioned. Try it with “There Will Never Be Another You” (5 bars before the end), “Whispering” (bar 3) or “Slow Boat To China” (bar 4).
Conversely, we could take the CTD of “Spring is Here” and replace it with our ii7-V7 sequence. That is, instead of beginning the song with E°7→E, we use Am7→D7→E. With the leading tone of E in the melody, just like so many of the examples we listed above, it makes for a beautiful substitution. Try it!
But what do we call it?
Any suggestions for a good name for the chord sequence?
Maybe “Whispering ii-V”? Or “ii-V from below”?
If you have a good idea, please leave it as a comment!
Big Gratitude to Joe Gilman
Big thanks to the brilliant Joe Gilman for his terrific conversations about this subject, and for turning me on to the connection to common tone diminished.