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Improvising Over The Dominant Cycle in Jazz

Ivan Gygi

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JGT Contributor Ivan Gygi provides a valuable lesson on the Dominant Cycle in Jazz.

Developing the ability to improvise over the dominant cycle is essential for the aspiring jazz musician. Not only does it frequently appear in standards, but also just the fundamental idea of any chord type moving around the cycle is fundamental to jazz. This is evident in songs like All the Things You Are, and Autumn Leaves. There are many strategies for blowing over these changes and many great players may have different approaches.  With that in mind, I will share some tips that have helped me. Video accompanies the last graphic of the article.

What is the dominant cycle?

 The Dominant Cycle is when Dominant 7 chords move up by 4ths or down by 5ths in a continuously resolving sequence until they reach the end destination. If you are familiar with the circle of fourths, this cycle follows the same pattern. In a continuous loop, it looks like this. 

Parts of this cycle appear in many songs and jazz standards. Here are some examples: 

Dominant 7th Lines

If you don’t already have an arsenal of dominant 7th lines under your fingers, start learning a few. Here are some that have given me a lot of mileage: 

When playing over the dominant cycle, I sometimes like to stitch together these lines to create a longer phrase. Here is an example that combines a few of the lines from above.

Learning to combine your lines like this requires experimentation. Spend some time trying different combinations and ways to weave together your own go-to lines. 

Using Chord Substitutions

The substitution I most commonly use is replacing the V7 with the ii7. This is called the ii for V sub and is very common in jazz. In the key of C major, that would mean I could replace the G7 with a D-7. It can also work in reverse with the V replacing the ii. Because I have more go-to jazz lines over ii7 – V7 progressions than anything else, this opens up a huge chunk of my vocabulary that I can now utilize over the dominant cycle.

A substitution I like to use for an altered sound is replacing the V7 with another V7 chord a tritone away. This is called the tritone substitution and stems from diminished harmony. In the key of C major, this would be replacing the G7 with a Db7.

We can take this a step further and combine the tritone sub with the ii for V sub by adding Ab-7 for Db7 to create a ii-V progression. 

Both of these examples will sound very dissonant when played with accompaniment because they never resolve to the original changes. Mixing the tritone sub with the original changes and the ii for V sub will create a solo with a nice combination of tension and resolution. Here is an example: 

Using the Cycle to Practice Scales

Once you feel comfortable getting your go-to jazz vocabulary into your playing, improvising around scales/modes can bring a new level of creativity. Improvising around scales is a massive topic with many different approaches. My intent is to show you a few of the ways that I like to practice and utilize scales around the dominant cycle. 

Here is an exercise I like to use to develop my ability to seamlessly transition between scales. I start by picking a certain type of dominant 7th scale. I then use that scale to play through the cycle using only eighth notes. As the chords change I try to continue my line by moving to the next closest note in the scale based on the new root. I first practice the scale without playing any leaps and trying to avoid frequent changes in direction. If I were practicing the Mixolydian scale, it might look like this:

      C Mixolydian               F Mixolydian   Bb Mixolydian Eb Mixolydian

The point of this exercise is not to sound musical, but rather to train your brain to see how these scales connect. As you grow in comfort you can begin to use skips and more frequent direction changes in your lines. This will make your lines more compelling and produces a sound similar to what someone like guitarist Nir Felder might play.

      C Mixolydian               F Mixolydian   Bb Mixolydian Eb Mixolydian

To make it sound more like jazz, you can also begin to add chromatic notes to connect the scale tones. I have added a green dot above all the chromatic notes in this example. 

         C Mixolydian               F Mixolydian   Bb Mixolydian Eb Mixolydian

You can apply these same steps to other scales you are working on. You might try the Lydian Dominant or Super Locrian scale. 

Example #1 (Lydian Dominant): 

Example #2 (Super Locrian):

Putting It All Together 

Here is a short solo over the dominant cycle that incorporates both my stock lines and improvising with scales.  See Video!

Pre-prescribed lines are a foundation that clearly voice the jazz language, while the improvised scales bring an element of creativity and melodic freedom. Combining the two can help create a solo that is well balanced. Finding the right balance comes with practice and experience. 

I hope these exercises help you find new ways to practice the dominant cycle and hopefully make it more understandable and fun. 

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