Soloing Through Chromatically Descending Chords
by Warren Sirota
One type of chord progression that has always intrigued and challenged me is a sequence of chords whose roots descends in half steps but which "change flavors" along the way. It's fairly common in jazz.
For instance, the first phrase of Joy Spring ends with:
Ex 1. | Am7 Ab7 | Gm7 C7 | Fmaj7 |
Or the answering refrain in Night and Day:
Ex 2. | Am7b5 | Abm7 | Gm7 | Gbdim7 | Fm7b5 | Bb7 | Eb |
Or the B section of Sweet Sue:
Ex 3. | G7 | Gb7+ | Fmaj7 | E7 | Am | etc.
Or One Note Samba:
Ex 4. | Dm7 | Db7 | Cm7 | Bm7b5 |
There are a number of approaches towards going through this material. Obviously, you could play a scale or arpeggio based on each chord as it comes up. That will get you through the changes. But it doesn't connect the chords.
Before we get into approaches to soloing on this material, let's take a moment to analyze why and how the flavors change in each of these progressions.
First of all, what are these progressions? They are, in general, functioning as "flat-five substitutions" for traveling around the circle of fifths. So, Ex 1 is really a variation on the common | Am7 D7 | Gm7 C7 | Fmaj7 |. (if you take the fifth of the D7 chord, an A, and flat it, you get Ab7). And Ex. 2 could be played: | Am7b5 | D7b9 | Gm7 | C7 | Fm7 | Bb7 | Eb |.
Secondly, why are some chords major, some minor, and some with alterations? It all has to do with the melody and the key of the song. For instance, One Note Samba is famous for having it's main melody consist entirely of the note F (okay, it also goes up to Bb - it should be called "Two Note Samba". But then would anyone have ever noticed it? And it also goes all over the place in the bridge). If the melody note is going to be F, and the roots are going to be D, Db, C and B, that implies certain chord choices. In particular, your D will be minor, your Db will be major or dominant, your C chord will be a suspended 4th, and your B-based chord will have a flat 5. So the chord flavor choices are often determined by the melody.
In order to get a sense of how to play over these types of chords, I like to look at solutions that sound good to me, try and think about what makes them tick, and then generalize them.
We've already analyzed several of Django Reinhardt's solos on Night And Day. Now I'd like to analyze the approach of violinist Svend Asmussen and the great but virtually unknown Argentinian swing guitarist Oscar Aleman. I transcribed these selections from ACOUSTIC DISC 's great recording Swing Guitar Masterpieces.
Since the original 1933 recording was not tuned to a standard A=440, I used SlowGold's pitch transposition function to lower the recording's pitch by 54 cents. Even so, it was a little tricky matching notes with the violinist's "liberal" interpretation of pitch (I'm not at all saying that is bad - it's just that violins don't have frets, so intonation is more subjective than, say, on a guitar. But playing exactly in tune with a tempered scale is actually a musical compromise that was developed in Bach's time, and a great violinist's more fluid interpretation of pitch is one of the key factors that forms the basis of a jazz or blues violinist's style).
Firstly, let's look at this elegant violin line (found at, which I've presented here with TAB for the guitarists among you (click it to hear it in MIDI form):
There are several performance notes: first, the "pull-off roll" in measure 2 is accomplished by putting all 4 fingers of the left hand down and pulling off the fingers in the order 4-3-2. The first note (the D) should linger just a little for extra sensuality.
The other note is the sweep picking in measure 5 over the E7 arpeggio. The riff consisting of the last 4 notes of measure 5 and the first note of measure 1 is a flashy V7 - I transition that can be played in nearly any song! Very cool.
In this example, most of the notes are chord tones (or at least extensions of chord tones - the D in the FMAJ7 chord in measure 4, for instance, imparts an F6 flavor, which is not so different than FMAJ7). The next example, by guitarist Aleman takes a completely chromatic approach to the passage:
Now, this is a little unusual - an octave and a half of descending half steps, baring at most a random relation to the chords at any given point. It works because the guitarist's syncopation and expression make it work, and because it turns diatonic for the phrase ending in the final measure.
Anyway, there are a couple of ideas for you to try and apply the next time you want to play through this type of changes. Other ideas? Let me know.