If Escher had been a jazz musician he’d have loved turnarounds

Most lead sheets for standards don’t bother including the turnaround at the end of each section – it’s just assumed that you’ll know what to play. In case you don’t know, this article will run through the most common first choices for turnarounds to chords on each scale degree. You can also use the same ideas anywhere in a tune where you want to add passing chords.

Obviously there is much scope for alteration, including:

  • Substituting similar chord types, eg IIIm for I, IV for IIm
  • Altering chord types (mainly, but not exclusively, the use of different species of dominant)
  • Tritone substitutions (mainly, but not exclusively, of dominants)
  • Tad Dameron/Coltrane substitutions
  • Extended cadences

This sort of thing can, of course, be overdone – so feel free to experiment, but handle with care when you’re in the thick of things.  Anyway, you need to know what you’re altering before you alter it, so let’s look at the basic first choices.


In the key of C, turning around to…

  • I |   CΔ    A7   |    Dm7   G7    ||    CΔ
  • II |   CΔ    F7   |    Eø      A7     ||    Dm7 (or D7)
  • III |   CΔ  Am7  |   F#ø     B7     ||    Em7
  • IV |   CΔ   D7    |   Gm7    C7    ||     FΔ
  • #IV |   CΔ   A7    |    Dm7    G7   ||    F#ø
  • VI |   CΔ   F7    |    Bø      E7     ||    Am7
  • VII |   CΔ   D7    |   Gm7    C7    ||     Bø

You could just learn these by rote, and go right ahead if you wish. But you’ll get more out of it if you think through why these particular chords are chosen. Strict musical theorists may be horrified at the cavalier approach coming up – I am unrepentant. What follows is a combination of “kitchen sink” harmonic analysis and observations of practical relevance to jazz musicians. This stuff is a bit of headful, so take your time over it.


Since the destination point is the crucial thing, it makes sense to work backwards. The first point to make is that in this context:

  • #IV is treated as a tritone substitution of I
  • VII is treated as a tritone substitution of IV

Therefore these destination points have the same turnarounds approaching them. With this in mind, we can now see that the final two chords in all the turnarounds are II-Vs to the Is they approach.

  • I | Dm7   G7    ||    CΔ
  • #IV | Dm7    G7   ||    F#ø
  • IV |  Gm7    C7   ||     FΔ
  • VII |  Gm7    C7   ||     Bø

Where the II in the II-V is a minor 7, it is preceded by its own V:

  • I |   CΔ    A7   |    Dm7   G7    ||    CΔ
  • IV |   CΔ   D7    |   Gm7    C7    ||     FΔ
  • #IV |   CΔ   A7    |    Dm7    G7   ||    F#ø
  • VII |   CΔ   D7    |   Gm7    C7    ||     Bø

Job done – but we need to note in passing that the second chord is often played as 7b9 or 7alt because it’s functioning as a temporary minor V-I. The same is true of the fourth chord when approaching a half-diminished destination.

Where the final chord approached is minor, the II in the II-V approaching it can be half-diminished (the dominant is very likely to be played as 7b9 or 7alt as well):

  • II |  Eø      A7     ||    Dm7 (or D7)
  • III |   F#ø     B7    ||    Em7
  • VI |  Bø      E7     ||    Am7

With these it’s a bit harder to see the logic behind the choice of second chord of the full turnaround. If you have trouble internalising these ones, don’t fret – it’s quite legitimate to simply leave out the second chord.

Anyway, here’s the science bit.

In these instances it’s helpful to consider the second chord as a harmonic pivot – a chord that links the chords either side of it by virtue of having something in common with both.

Beginning with the turnaround to the III chord, we see the use of the VI as a pivot:

III |   CΔ  Am7  |   F#ø     B7     ||    Em7

The first three chords in this sequence, then, are I VI #IVø. All these chords have a similar function within the key – the VI is the relative minor and, as we’ve already noted, the #IVø is a tritone sub for the tonic. The close relationship between the chords becomes clear if we look at the seventh chords (in convenient inversions):

  •     CEGB
  • Am7 CEGA
  • F#ø  CEF#A

Notice the smooth logical voice leading, made possible by the common tones the chords share. Notice also that the roots descend by minor 3rds.

Another way of looking at these chords is to consider that each chord has two different but coinciding identities. The chords mutate as follows:

CΔ    C6/Am7  Am6/F#ø

In the turnarounds to II and VI we pivot on a dominant chord on the IV degree. Why would we do a damn fool thing like that?

Well, motion from I to IV is always an option (the blues and hundreds of standards use this). We alter the chord quality to dominant to help the pivot.

The turnaround to II isn’t as weird as it looks at first sight:

II |   CΔ    F7   |    Eø    A7     ||    Dm7 (or D7)

Remember the principle of tritone substitution is that dominants a tritone apart contain the same tritone within them, so they can substitute for each other:

  • F7   |    E
  • B7   |    E

So the second chord in the turnaround to II works as a pivot because it is simultaneously the IV of the key and the bII (tritone sub of V) of the following chord. These relationships are strong enough for the pivot to succeed even though there are hardly any common tones between the chords:

  •   CEGB
  • F7  CEbFA
  •   BbDEG

We need to note also that the second chord is often played as 7#11. This is a result of the tritone substitution – strictly speaking, B7alt = F7#11.

As to the turnaround to VI, what we’re actually doing by going via IV7 is introducing a diminished sound for the purposes of a sort of “collapsing” resolution. Another way of writing this turnaround would be something like this:

VI |   CΔ    F7   |    Bø      E7     ||    Am7

can be treated as:

VI |   CΔ    Co/F   |    Bø     E7     ||    Am7

In this day and age, it’s more common to think in terms of dominants than diminished chords, so it might be best to just consider this turnaround in terms of common tones between the three seventh chords:

  •   CEGB
  • F7(b9) CEbF(#)A
  • BDFA

Again, we can see the pivot chord in terms of mutating dual identities:

CΔ  Cm6/Co  Bø

As all this diminished stuff implies, the second chord in the sequence is often played as 7b9.

  1. building backwards, add a II-V to the destination
  2. if the II of the II-V is a minor chord, precede it with its own V
  3. if the II of the II-V is #IVø precede it with VIm
  4. otherwise go to IV7

Tune turns around to…

  • I  I Got Rhythm
  • IIm Satin Doll
  • II7 If I Were a Bell
  • IIIm Yardbird Suite (bridge)
  • IV Just Friends
  • #IV Stella by Starlight
  • VI Laura
  • VII I Didn’t Know What Time It Was

Sorry, that all got a bit heavy. Here’s some light relief – using computer modelling and 3D printing to produce real-life Escher constructs. Delightful stuff:

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Posted in b) Harmony & Comping
4 comments on “Turnarounds
  1. Jako says:

    Hi, Jason, can you point where exactly is the turnaround in “Stella by Starlight” supposed to be (maybe it isn´t charted?) and what chords it contains? I´m playing it in the original Bb mayor key…

    • Jason says:

      Hi Jako,
      Stella ends on the tonic Bb, then starts again at the top on Em7b5 (the #IV degree).

      You don’t actually have to play anything at the end to turn the tune around, but if you do want to add some movement Cm7 F7 works well. Particularly if you twist the F7 into F7#11, which leads nicely to any kind of Em chord.

      Another approach (a bit off-topic here, but one I use often and hear often) is to simply shift the final Bb major 7th chord up a semitone to B major 7th as a way of getting back to the top. This idea is a bit of a halfway-house approach – the B major is a pleasing semitone shift up from the tonic you’ve just left, and the root and major third of it set up a V-I to the Em chord to follow, even though it’s a major 7th chord, not a dominant.

      Hope this helps.

      • Jako says:

        Excellent! Now I understand that many turnarounds are usually not charted, but seldomly used as ways to increase the harmonic activity. Just tested both of your suggestions, and they sound great!

        • Jason says:

          Stick around, Jako. In the coming weeks, I’ll be being rude about arrangers, horn players, Jane Austen, pianists, sound engineers and even Santa…
          And please feel free to join in, disagree, keep me on my toes.

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