I was playing one of those tunes the other day – the ones beloved of singers, the ones that go round the same II V I seemingly forever. Of course, I kept things pretty tight for the head, but then started mucking about during the solo. Hey, that’s just the way I am…
A guy came up to me during the break and said he loved the substitutions and reckoned they sounded a bit like Coltrane. Well, they were – they were a lot like Coltrane. I explained it and then he looked a bit sad and said he couldn’t imagine being able to just launch that kind of sub anywhere in a tune. So I told him the way I think of them. I think it helped more than hindered…
Think ahead. You should know that the block coming up is a II V I in a certain key. This four or two-bar chunk is “in C”. (You should actually think that way anyway.)
Start from where you’re going to. Your first chord is the I. So let’s say Cmaj7.
Jump up a minor third and play a dominant. Then resolve the dominant where it wants to go. Cmaj7 Eb7 Abmaj7. Then do it again – Abmaj7 B7 Emaj7. Then again – Emaj7 G7 Cmaj7. Jump and resolve, jump and resolve. Does the movement seem weird? Well, you could think to yourself “what’s the minor (or blue) third of this tonic chord?” and play a dominant on that root. Then just resolve it.
We’ve arrived at:
| Cmaj7 Eb7 | Abmaj7 B7 | Emaj7 G7 | Cmaj7 |
Which works just fine, but we can finesse things further by thinking backwards and putting the original II back in at the start:
| Dm7 Eb7 | Abmaj7 B7 | Emaj7 G7 | Cmaj7 |
This refinement really just involves thinking one mode up from the key the section is in for the first chord. But if your mind works differently, you could think “right let’s play the II chord I want, and then go up a semitone” at the start. Which is an easy gesture, because it’s a tritone-subbed minor I V (Dm7 Eb7 for Dm7 A7). Up to you.
A few further pointers:
- Because these are already substitutions (and sometimes the band are sticking to the original II V I, so you’re deliberately rubbing against them), keep things basic on the dominant chords. It’s cool enough already.
- There are some musicians (and I’m occasionally one of them) who just can’t play a straight dominant to save their lives – everything is twisted. Keep the discipline when you’re playing Coltrane subs – at least at first, so you’re cleanly outlining the substituted harmony.
- You have a couple of hidden friends in each chord change. Bear in mind that the 4 and 5 of the major chord you’re leaving are the same as the 9 and 3 of the dominant that follows. Hanging lines around those tones at the change points is a good way to start getting something coherent out of this kind of harmony.
- Of course, this way of thinking depends on you knowing your V-Is in all keys, but I can’t really help you with that…
So give it a shot. Test yourself on II V Is in random keys. It really is a lot easier than you think to get on the Trane.
See also Coltrane’s Substitution Tunes