Dominant Ice Cream

We all scream...

Ice cream, you scream, we all scream…

I’ve been asked to post something about how jazz musicians play fast and loose with V chords when comping. And boy, do they.

Well, I’ll start by observing that the chord alterations we’ll look at are also used in contexts where they don’t resolve down a fifth (or a semitone in a tritone substitution situation). But we’ll stick here to the use of different dominant chord types in a II-V-I progression – which frankly is what you’ll spend most of your jazz life doing…

It’s basically a bit like choosing ice cream. Different types of dominant chord have different flavours. Sometimes you’re in the mood for one, sometimes another. And the tastes are distinctive – just as you could tell an ice cream flavour with your eyes shut, you can hear the different dominant flavours.

What follows is just for illustration – you might feel that a sus chord evokes the taste of jerk chicken. It’s up to you, but do play around with these chord types and get to the point where you can automatically tell one from another just by how they sound.

Oh, and jazz musicians love to play hip stuff. So what I describe below as a jazz voicing for G7 would be more accurately described as G7 9 13 (no 5) or something like that. Nevertheless it’s what people play, and they’ll do it when the chart just says G7.

I’ve given what I regard as some typical rootless voicings, and the inversions are chosen to be as tight to each other as possible (you’ll see why later). There are other voicings and inversions, of course.


Your basic unaltered dominant – G7.
The chord scale is G A B C D E F, the only issue being that you tend not play the 4th (C) in the voicing because it’s dissonant against the 3rd (B). The 4th is like that unexpected chunk of ice that sets your teeth on edge.
It’s the V mode from the home key of C.

A typical classical voicing is G B D F (1 3 5 b7)
A typical jazz voicing is F A B E (b7 9 3 13)

Many jazz musicians prefer to talk in terms of “octave-plus” numbers when discussing dominants. So you’ll hear of 9ths rather than 2nds, 11ths rather than 4ths and 13ths rather than 6ths.

It does have a sort of plain smoothness to it. But everybody likes a bit of vanilla from time to time.


The same as above, but this time you deliberately voice it so the C sounds good – G7sus.
The chord scale is the same. In the jazz context, a sus chord is a bit like collapsing the whole II-V bit of a II-V-I progression into one chord – so Dm7 G7 C, G7sus C and Dm7/G C are pretty much the same thing.

A typical classical voicing is G C D F (1 4 5 b7).
A typical jazz voicing is F A C E (b7 9 11 13).

Oh, and a classical composer would tend to resolve the 4th to the 3rd. Jazz musicians often leave the suspended tone hanging proud.

It has a sort of creaminess.


Now we start altering things – G7b9.
The chord scale is G Ab A# B C# D E F. Note – 8 tones. And the first of two symmetrical scales we’ll meet.
It’s taken from diminished harmony – the repeating pattern is half step, whole step.

A typical classical voicing is G B D F Ab (1 3 5 b7 b9)
A typical jazz voicing is F Ab B E (b7 b9 3 13)

It has a sort of sweetness to it. Players of Parker’s era were fond of strawberry.


The most alterations you can make to a dominant chord without it ceasing to be a dominant chord – G7alt or G7#9.
The chord scale is G Ab A# B C# Eb F.
It’s the VII mode of melodic minor – in this case Ab melodic minor.

It’s not commonly played in a classical content, but a typical jazz voicing is F A# B Eb (b7 #9 3 b13).

It has a sort of darkness to it. Players of Coltrane’s era liked chocolate chip a lot.


Whole-tone – G7#5.
The chord scale is G A B C# Eb F. Note – six tones. The other symmetrical option.
The repeating pattern is whole steps forever.

In classical music this chord is most associated with the Impressionists. There isn’t really a typical jazz voicing that I’m aware of, but something like F A B Eb (b7 9 3 #5) will work fine.

Monk was quite nutty. But he wasn’t the only one.


The controversial one – G7susb9. Some call it Phrygian, which can be confusing. Phrygian is a minor sound, but that’s not really the context in which the susb9 chord is generally used.

The chord scale is G Ab B? C D E? F.

What’s with the question marks? Well, nobody can really decide whether the 3rd in this chord sound should be major, minor or a #9th that sounds like a minor 3rd. In fact, some people think this chord shouldn’t even have a 3rd at all. And you can flat the 13th or not, as you wish. Or you can avoid either or both.

Effectively with this chord sound, the b9 and 11th are the defining “chord tones”. They’ve rather overtaken the 3rd and 7th in importance.

This sound can be derived several ways:
The III mode of Eb major – G Ab Bb C D Eb F
The II mode of F melodic minor – G Ab Bb C D E F
The V mode of C harmonic minor – G Ab B C D Eb F
The V mode of C harmonic major – G Ab B C D E F

The only difference is the treatment of the 3rd and the 13th.

Remember how a sus chord is a bit like collapsing the whole II-V bit of a II-V-I progression into one chord? This is the same trick really, but with a minor II-V-I – so D∅ G7alt Cm, G7susb9 Cm and D∅/G Cm are pretty much the same thing.

Incidentally, playing minor II-Vs to a major I and vice versa is quite common, whether it’s in the chart or not.

Probably the best known example of this chord in classical music is in the last movement of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto, but he doesn’t use it in the jazz dominant role of a V to I. A typical jazz voicing is G Ab C D (1 b9 11 5).

This is quite a modern complex taste – ’60s onwards.


How and when to play these alterations? Well, generally speaking, when comping a melody you tend to avoid a clash of taste with the melody. Note to the iPhone generation – please do know the heads (and I admit I’m guilty in that department myself sometimes).

But in a soloing situation, you can often wind up with two different scoops on the cone when the soloist plays one alteration and you do another. And sometimes the bassist changes your cone, which alters the flavours. Not necessarily bad at all – that’s jazz.

The best way to assimilate these sounds is to play round a II-V-I and try them out, first individually then in combination. For instance, using the sample voicings I’ve given above:


Try them in the context of a minor II-V-I too, by bookending them with typical minor II and I voicings:


Experiment with the scoops in any permutations you like. Pile them up on the cone (a nice low root) and see what you think. Experience how they feel and sound.

Not only does this help you get to know the flavours and develop your own tastes, it prepares you for what happens in real life – you don’t just make your choice, plonk down a dominant and move on. It’s very common to play first one dominant type, then another, and even another, in one single measure. In both comping and soloing.

PS There’s also Pistachio flavour, which is G7#11 ( G A B C# D E F). But that’s rarely used in II-V-I situations, so I’ve skipped it here.

PPS Consider also that jazz musicians often convert the II chord into a dominant as well, and sometimes even the I chord. And once you’ve made a chord dominant, the ice cream parlour is really open for business…

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in b) Harmony & Comping
3 comments on “Dominant Ice Cream
  1. Adam Cole says:

    I love the analogy. I’d be interested to see if this helps folks new to the game!

  2. Would you like me to share this on Social Media. I am sure people would be interested.


    Your Maitre’d

    Nolan Régent
    Events Manager / Proprietor



  3. Dr EC says:

    Awesome way to think of these. Thank you for your insight and recommendations

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