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:
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.
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:
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
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
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?
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).
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)!
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.
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!