A Point of View

Possibly the Most Important Aspect of Music Creation

‘Option Anxiety’ – that’s what it’s often called – the horrifying recognition that everything is available to you. It plagues composers, improvisors and writers, and it happens any time they don’t have enough discipline to impose limits on their output. The results of failing to define the boundaries of a composition or improvised solo is music that sounds like pots and pans falling downstairs.

The best advice often comes in small packages. One phrase can say it all. In this case, the phrase related to arranging, and went something like this:

“If you are going to arrange a piece of music, it is vital that you have a ‘point of view’ with relation to the piece. Without it, nothing will come together.”

(Mike Crotty … arranger extraordinaire)

That point of view can be anything from soup to nuts. It can be formal to outrageous, funny to heart stopping; it doesn’t matter. Once it has been defined, it will create a ‘raison d’etre’ (ahh … the French!) for the entire piece.

This, of course, applies equally to composition and improvisation. It is also a organizational principle that informs any number of philosophies relating to perception, the nature of reality and all that. But I digress! Let’s take a look at this as it relates to improvising.

‘Positioning yourself’ as you approach a solo can often help you deliver a coherent narrative. It can be something as simple as silently voicing ‘lyrical’, ‘busy’, or ‘fluid’; to imagining a shape, a graded dissonance or angular motion. Once that suggestion rings you have a basis for what follows.

One tried and true framework for improvising is to simply cop a little of the style of a favourite player. Whispering ‘play like Miles’, ‘like Wes’, ‘like Coltrane’ or like Metheny’ just before you play can have some startling results. These guys will actually ‘visit’ you for a minute, and might even set you on the path of a great solo. Now I don’t mean quoting a bunch of Methe-ny licks at the head of your solo to start it off. That’s just plain foolish and it will get you no-where.

No, what you want to do is connect with the feel, the tone, the ‘point of view’ of the guy – just for a minute There’s absolutely nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of your he-roes. Dead or alive, these guys are all around us and they wanna help. Fact is, if you are ac-tually committed to ‘playing’ you don’t stand a chance in hell of sounding like any of them anyway. You will always end up sounding like you.

A Handy Framework for Jazz Standard Harmony

NOTE: As a Jazz player you should already be familiar with Cycle of 5ths, Secondary Domi-nants, b5 Substitution (Tritone Substitution), Chord Quality (Chord Type), Parallel Minors and Parallel Modes. If not look ‘em up pronto!

Chords can move in many ways. Resolution by half step, common tone sharing and symmetrics are but a few. Much of the music in the ‘American Song Book’ (the Jazz Standards) how-ever, tends to use harmony from the Classical/Romantic periods – harmony that often relies on the resolution of the half-step. You’ll find that players who have hundreds of standards committed to memory tend to have a framework to base their ‘Common Practice’ chord progressions on. More often than not, this consists of some combination of the Cycle of 5ths, Chord Quality alteration, b5 Substitution, and the various resolutions of the Dim7 chord. So let’s take a look at this framework. For the time being, we’ll stick strictly to the Major Key.

The harmonies found here all sound very ‘inside.’ They are, however, the basis of hundreds of standards and the starting point for all reharmonization and the more ‘outside’ harmony that follows.


The most common chord movement in Jazz Standard harmony involves the CYCLE OF 5THS. Progression in the following table can flow both ways but Left to Right tends to be ‘with the current,’ giving the feeling that you ‘flow’ downstream while you ‘work at’ moving upstream. This psychological effect is used constantly in chord progressions.


Chords in the key are often altered to (dominant) 7th chords to create forward motion and/or imply another key center. These are called SECONDARY DOMINANTS.

Chords can also alter their CHORD QUALITY; for example: Em7 to E7. Although this isn’t re-ally a ‘chord progression’ as such (the root remains the same), it is used constantly. While all chord types are available, the majority of chords change from the Secondary Dominant version to the ‘natural’ version and vice-versa. Check out the different methods of moving ‘downstream’ through the cycle: left to right, diagonally, up and down and all combinations of the above.


The number of possibilities available as you move through the entire cycle ends up being astronomical. And that doesn’t even include periodically ‘backing up’ (moving ‘upstream’) for a period of time, e.g.:

A common substitute for the V7 chord in a IIm7, V7, I is the bII7; for example, in the Key of C Major: Dm7, Db7, C. This is called a FLAT FIVE SUBSTITUTION. The G7 and the Db7 share the tritone (B and F) – reinforcing their functional relationship.


The chord movement is still Left to Right, Diagonal and Up and Down and Any Combination but the possibilities are greatly magnified by the extra line of b5 subs.

Another common harmonic tool is the use of BORROWED CHORDS. These are chords borrowed from the Parallel Modes and/or Parallel Minors. One of the functions of this is to lend the sound of that mode and its emotional content to the progression, e.g. Dm7b5 G7 C where the Dm7b5 is borrowed from the Key of C minor.

All of the “Tonal Modes” are available for this purpose (Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian and Aeolian) as well as the Parallel Minors (Harmonic and Ascending Melodic Minors sharing the same Tonic as the Major Key scale). When substituted, these chords have an emotional and/or functional effect on the song. A chord that may have had a Subdominant Function, may end up having a Dominant Function depending on the substitution!

Any chord in the same column is available as a BORROWED CHORD when creating a progression for a song.


NOTE: Whereas the flow is still ‘downstream and upstream’, the change of chord quality and possible function requires you handle these carefully, e.g.: an Dm7b5 in place of Dm7 now has a Dominant function, and is perfectly happy moving directly to C major! Generally speaking, a high percentage of chord progressions found in the Jazz Standards are simply different ways of moving through the expanded cycle of 5ths we have looked at here. All kinds of modifications can take place on these chords, from building up to the 13th to adding multiple altered notes to dominant 7th chords. The FUNCTION, however, can always be found in the basic four note chord.

We will be looking at a few Standards and applying these ideas shortly, but first we have to take a look at one of the most influential chords in Classic/Romantic harmony: The Diminished 7th – its structure, resolutions, and substitutions.