As jazz educators and learners, we focus a lot on major II-V-I’s, but we don’t often address the challenges of tackling those ubiquitous and sometimes tricky minor II-V-I’s.

First, let’s quickly review what a minor II-V-I looks like so we’re all on the same page.

Minor II-V-I’s are thought of a few different ways. Feel free to mix and match these various approaches, but be aware that, in general, there are a few potential clashes depending on the 9ths and 13ths of which versions of the II and V chords you’re using. Also, if you use the tonic harmonic minor, it’s most idiomatic and effective if you only use that one scale for a single melody covering all 3 chords in the II-V-I.

This doesn’t mean you have to stick to only that scale every time you play a minor II-V-I and of course you don’t have to use only that scale for your entire solo, but mixing harmonic minor with the altered scale and diminished scale during a single melodic statement is tricky to pull off. The goal is to trust your ears and to be clear and coherent with your melodies.

Here are a few approaches to thinking about minor II-V-I’s:

  1. The II chord can be thought of as a half-diminished 7th chord or as a minor-seven-b5 chord.
    • The most important distinction is to consider which mode you’ll use: the Locrian mode (a major mode – the major scale played from the 7th scale degree of the scale) or Locrian natural 2 (a melodic minor mode – the melodic minor scale played from the 6th scale degree of melodic minor). If you use Locrian, you’re dealing with a b9, if you use Locrian natural 2, you’re dealing with a natural 9.
  2. The V chord can have a variety of alterations, but almost always has a b9.
    • The biggest distinction here is which of 3 scales you will choose from:
        1. Diminished (whole-half format starting 1/2 step above the bass note – e.g. the Bb whole-half diminished scale is played over A13b9) – note: this scale has a natural 13th
        2. Altered scale (the seventh mode of melodic minor, e.g. Bb melodic minor played from A over A7b9b13) – note: this scale has a flatted 13th
        3. Tonic harmonic minor – i.e. the harmonic minor scale built from the I of the key you’re in, so for A7b9 it will be D harmonic minor

      The I chord is generally minor, but often minor II-V-I’s can actually “surprise” you and resolve to a major I chord (the opening progression of “Night and Day” is just one classic example). If the I chord is minor, you can generally get away with playing either the Dorian, aeolian or melodic/harmonic minor modes.

      So, how can you improvise over these various combinations of minor II-V-I chords?

      1. Treat each chord as a specific mode.

        The “garden variety” modal-scalar approach to minor II-V-I’s might be “obvious” but is worth practicing regardless. To take this common approach to the next level, let’s address an added level of nuance: the modes you pick can vary based on the melody of the tune and the voice-leading implied by the chord instrument players’(s) (piano, guitar) choice of voicings (see below for notated examples).

      2. Use the diminished scale.

        One classic “trick” to simplify minor II-V-I’s and add more color to your lines is to treat both the II and the V chords as one cohesive unit. You can play a single diminished scale over both chords (the whole-half diminished scale starting from the root of the II chord, e.g. E whole-half diminished scale over both the E-7b5 and A13b9 chords for a II-V-I in D minor)!

      3. Use the harmonic minor scale over all 3 chords.

        Instead of thinking of 2 or 3+ scales/modes, one of the best ways to simultaneously simplify and broaden your melodic approach to minor II-V-I’s is to use the tonic harmonic minor scale – i.e. use the harmonic minor scale built from the tonic or root of the key center (the I chord) for the whole II-V-I.

      4. Reimagine minor II-V-I’s as major II-V-I’s in the relative major key.

        Every major scale has a so-called “relative minor” key and vice versa. What this means is that you can instantly double your minor II-V-I vocabulary by applying major II-V-I lines to minor II-V-I’s (and vice versa!).

      To help you visualize the variety of options available to you, here are some notated examples to illustrate these various approaches in terms of the mode/scale/chord relationships:

      And here are some sample minor II-V-I melodies built using some of the approaches discussed and illustrated above:

      I hope you’re inspired to explore these various ways to approach minor II-V-I’s – and happy practicing!

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Josiah Boornazian is an award-winning saxophonist, composer, and educator currently active in New York City, Miami, California, and Washington state. Josiah has performed with a wide variety of artists including Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Mark Farina, Dave Liebman, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, Ignacio Berroa, the New York Voices, Tom Scott, Cyrille Aimee, Dafnis Prieto, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Shelly Berg, Chris Potter, Drew Gress, David Binney, Wayne Krantz, Tom Scott, Ari Hoenig, Dan Weiss, John Escreet, Jacob Sacks, Fima Ephron, Jonathan Crayford, Obed Calvaire, Will Vinson, Matt Brewer, Ben Wendel, Eivind Opsvik, Ferenc Nemeth, Alan Ferber, John Daversa, Donny McCaslin, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. Josiah holds a Master of Arts degree in music from the City University of New York's City College campus and a Bachelor of Music degree from California State University, Northridge. In 2016, Josiah, who has taught on faculty at the City College of New York and given masterclasses at various colleges and high schools in California and Washington, began pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami's prestigious Frost School of Music as a Henry Mancini Fellow. Josiah also teaches at the Frost School part-time as a graduate assistant. In 2017, Josiah's ensemble was selected to participate in the Bucharest International Jazz Competition and he was awarded a Björn Bärnheim Research Fellowship at the Hogan Jazz Archive during the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information, please visit josiahboornazian.com.