This article is copyright 2011 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in JAZZed, Vol. 6, No. 5, September 2011. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Two Chords, Many Possibilities!

by Antonio J. García

Placing just a couple of conditions on a situation can prompt lots of creativity. Yet for improvisers, a two-chord progression sometimes proves to be a curse that forces them to repeat limited material in an endless rut. How can you maximize your options?

            Let’s take a common progression: Dm7 to Bb7. You can find it in Bernie Miller’s “Bernie’s Tune” (made well-known by Gerry Mulligan and more), at the transitional eighth to ninth bars of a D minor blues, or as a vamp in countless other compositions. What are your options for approaching these two chords harmonically and melodically as a soloist?


·      Pick an appropriate minor scale. D Dorian minor (D to D in the key of C, all naturals) might be an initial reflex.

·      What if you preferred one flat? Then D Aeolian minor (key of F).

·      Or two flats? D Phrygian minor (key of Bb).

·      Melodic minor?

·      Harmonic minor?

·      Bluesy? The D blues scale works great.

·      Diminished? The D whole-half diminished scale combines the flavors of several other scales, including blues and melodic minor.

Let’s talk arpeggios. Consider the chord as extended upwards: Dm7 could become Dm11 (D-F-A-C-E-G), for example, offering you possibilities. A great way to look at any minor chord differently is to examine it as if you were taking the same or related tones but calling the root of the chord the current third (F), fifth (A), seventh (C), ninth (E), or even the eleventh (G) or thirteenth (B). So using our D minor chord of D-F-A-C (and potential extensions E, G, and B), let’s consider [and see Pitch References graphic for visual assistance]:

·      Viewing the Dm7’s third as a root of a chord of similar tones: Fmaj7 (F-A-C-E) or Fmaj9 (F-A-C-E-G) or even extending to Fmaj9(#11) (F-A-C-E-G-B). If you improvised over the Dm7 chord while thinking of it instead as an F major chord, you’d probably come up with different lines to play, conceptualizing out of an F major scale (including a Bb) or F Lydian scale (including a B natural).

·      Viewing the Dm7’s fifth as a root of a chord of similar tones: Am7 (A-C-E-G) or Am9 (A-C-E-G-B) or even extending to Am11 (A-C-E-G-B-D). If you improvised over the Dm7 chord while thinking of it instead as an A minor chord, your lines would likely stem from A Aeolian (with a B natural), A Phrygian (with a Bb), or even A melodic or harmonic minor. And what happens if you solo using A melodic minor, tossing in those F#s and G#s? You’ll find that if you stick with that tonal group to create tension and then release it into the more consonant tones of D minor, you’ll create great drama that you’ll never find if you stick to D minor ideas all night.

·      Viewing the Dm7’s seventh as a root of a chord of related tones: Cmaj7 (C-E-G-B) or Cmaj9 (C-E-G-B-D). If you improvised over the Dm7 chord while thinking of it instead as an C major chord, your lines would likely stem from a C major grounding. What happens if you solo conceptualizing Cmaj9(#11), tossing in those F#s for a C Lydian sound? Again, if you deliver your tonal group with determination and then drop into the pocket of consonant Dm7 tones, all will not only be forgiven but enjoyed!

·      Viewing the Dm7’s ninth as a root of a chord of related tones: Em (E-G-B). If you improvised over the Dm7 chord while thinking of it instead as an E minor chord, you’d be grouping the D minor chord’s extensions (ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth) in one colorful bundle. Arpeggiate that triad for a great sound.

·      With that approach, your lines would probably come from E Phrygian (with B natural) or E Locrian (with one flat). And if you like the E Locrian, you could also experiment with its cousin in the same key, C Mixolydian; but I admit I like the tonal grouping of E Locrian over a D minor sound more than I like the C Mixolydian.

·      What happens if you solo thinking of Em9, tossing in those F#s within a key of G major? We’ve been there already. Same if you think E melodic or harmonic minor: it’s all tension and release, but now grouped in a sonically clear manner.

·      Viewing the Dm7’s eleventh as a root of a chord of related tones: G7 (G-B-D-F). If you improvised over the Dm7 chord while thinking of it instead as an G dominant chord, you’d be focusing on G Mixolydian. I admit it’s not my favorite choice, but it fits.

·      Viewing the Dm7’s thirteenth as a root of a chord of related tones: Bm7(b5) (B-D-F-A). If you improvised over the Dm7 chord while thinking of it instead as an B half-diminished chord, you’d be targeting B Locrian, which I like quite a lot!

Now let’s take a similar approach with the Bb7 chord.


·      Pick an appropriate dominant scale. A typical first reaction would be Bb Mixolydian (Bb to Bb in the key of Eb, yielding three flats).

·      What if you preferred to be a bit brighter in sound and chose Bb Lydian-Mixolydian (keeping the Bb and Ab, but raising the Eb to E natural)? This implies that you’re anticipating the sound of the ninth of the Dm7 chord (E) coming up. (The Lydian-Mixolydian scale also happens to be the same as the fourth mode of F melodic minor.)

·      Bluesy? The Bb blues scale works fine.

·      Diminished? The Bb half-whole diminished scale works great (and happens to be the same notes as the D whole-half diminished scale above).

Now let’s take the arpeggio approach. Consider the chord as extended upwards: Bb7 becomes Bb9(#11) (Bb-D-F-Ab-C-E). Then examine it as if you were taking the same or related tones but calling the root of the chord the current third (D), fifth (F), seventh (Ab), ninth (C), or even the raised eleventh (E). These are new options to consider for your mindset so that you don’t just play the same old Bb-dominant ideas all day!

·      Viewing the Bb7’s third as a root of a chord of similar tones: Dm7(b5) (D-F-Ab-C) or Dm9(b5) (D-F-Ab-C-E). If you improvised over the Bb7 chord while thinking of it instead as this D half-diminished chord, you’d be thinking of that D whole-half diminished scale we played over the Dm7 chord: common ground!

·      Or perhaps, still thinking of Dm7(b5), you’d reach for the D Locrian scale (D to D in the key of Eb). Sure, it’s the Eb major scale; but now you’re emphasizing different tones within it.

·      Viewing the Bb7’s fifth as a root of a chord of similar tones: Fm(maj7) (F-Ab-C-E) or Fm9(maj7) (F-Ab-C-E-G) or even extending to Fm11(maj7) (F-Ab-C-E-G-Bb). If you improvised over the Bb7 chord while thinking of it instead as an F minor-major chord, your lines would likely stem from F melodic minor, giving the sound a bit different gravitational center (and setting up the Fm as a ii chord in a ii-V progression completing with the original Bb7 chord). And the F melodic minor scale is the same notes as the fifth mode of Bb Lydian-Mixolydian!

·      Viewing the Bb7’s seventh as a root of a chord of related tones: Abmaj9(#5) (Ab-C-E-G-Bb). If you improvised over the Bb7 chord while thinking of it instead as an Ab major chord with a raised fifth, you’ll invoke a fresher sound. The option including a Db is the third mode of F harmonic minor! If you decide instead in favor of a D natural, you create an Abmaj9(#5#11) (Ab-C-E-G-Bb-D). The raised eleventh (or fourth) of the Ab chord is simply the third of the original Bb7 chord—but you’ll probably approach it differently, since now you’ll be blowing on the third mode of F melodic minor (or the seventh mode of Bb Lydian-Mixolydian)!

·      Viewing the Bb7’s ninth as a root of a chord of related tones: a C triad, for starters (C-E-G). If you improvised over the Bb7 chord while thinking of it instead as an C major chord, you’d be grouping the chord’s extensions (ninth, raised eleventh, and thirteenth) in one tasty grouping: try arpeggiating it over the original Bb7 chord!

·      What if you solo thinking of C7(#5) (C-E-G#-Bb) or C9(#5) (C-E-G#-Bb-D)? Try the C melodic major scale—more commonly known as the fifth mode of F melodic minor (or the second mode of Bb Lydian-Mixolydian), as it includes E natural but also Ab and Bb. And now you’re really focusing on the upper extensions of the Bb7 chord!

·      You’ll probably try out the C whole-tone (or augmented) scale; and we’ve already learned that tossing in an F# can be a great color over the original Bb7.

·      You can go even further with a dominant chord and view the Bb7’s raised eleventh as a root of a chord of related tones: an Em7(b5) chord (E-G-Bb-D). Arpeggiate that over Bb7 for a great sound.

·      If you improvised over the Bb7 chord while thinking of it instead as that Em7(b5) (or half-diminished) chord, your best bet might be the E Locrian scale (E to E in the key of F)—though it will toss in an A natural that will sound best if continuing to ascend to the Bb. The F major scale never sounds so unique as when you play it from the standpoint of its seventh—and doing so over the original Bb7 chord drives the emphasis on its raised eleventh: the E natural.

A Matrix

            Let’s summarize our options so far by creating a column under each chord. I’ll organize the D minor column on the left, starting with ascensions of the tones of a Dm13 chord (D-F-A-C-E-G-B). Bb7 sounds fill the right column, plus some shared possibilities occupy the column in between. [See Matrix of Possibilities graphic for visual assistance.] You have a lot more options now than blowing all day on D Dorian and Bb Mixolydian!

Common and Uncommon

            So, looking back over all the choices so far, I have two questions for you:

·      If you were to pick a scale for the Dm7 that would require the least accidentals added or subtracted in order to be consonant when the chord changed to Bb7, what would that scale be? It would allow you to focus on the common tones shared by the two chords, promoting a unified core of sounds while freeing your mind to focus on melodic development. My vote would be for D Aeolian minor, which cleanly fits the Dm7 chord (key of F major) and then needs only an Ab substituted for the A natural to lock into the Bb7 chord (as a Bb Lydian-Mixolydian sound). A great in-between choice would be the C major scale: it fits the Dm7; and adding Bb and Ab yields that Bb Lydian-Mixolydian sound for the Bb7 chord.

·      Conversely, if you were to pick one scale for each chord that would require the most shifting of accidentals in order to be consonant when the chord changed, what would those two scales be? They would allow you to display the widest disparities between the two chords, training your lines on the differences within your melodic thoughts. If we leave out the more extreme options for the Dm7 (such as Em9, or the A and E melodic and harmonic minor colors), my suggestion might be the D Dorian for the Dm7 chord, followed by the Bb blues scale for the Bb7 chord, requiring four chromatic inflections from one chord to the other.


            Of course, there are no rules: you can play any note over any chord. And there’s lots of logic in sequencing anything you play by going up or down a half-step from your original idea. That move alone triples the matrix of possibilities! The colors are there, but the choices are up to you as you create new, improvised melodies.

For more information regarding basic chord symbols and their meaning, see the author’s “Clear Chord Symbols,” Down Beat, Vol. 66, No. 10, October 1999. For more regarding a chromatic approach, see “Thematic Dissonance: No Wrong Notes!,” Jazz Educators Journal, International Association of Jazz Educators, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring 1991.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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