“Beware the Jabberwock, my son.” (Lewis Carroll)
Have you heard of the iv/VII/iii chord progression? If not, then count your blessings and skip down the page a bit.
If you have heard of it, it may be because you’ve looked at the opening chords of “Autumn Leaves,” Am7/D7/Gmaj7, and tried to fit them into the key of E minor, which the ‘A’ section ends in a few measures later. Or, perhaps you’ve heard someone else refer to these chords as a iv/VII/iii chord progression in the key of E minor. (If you’re playing “Autumn “Leaves” in the key of G minor, then the chords in questions are Cm7/F7/Bbmaj7.)
If you’re thinking, “Hey... isn’t Am7/D7/Gmaj7 simply a ii/V/I progression in the key of G major?” then you can skip down this page a bit too, since you’re correct and you probably don’t need to hear about this.
But… if you’ve been trying to memorize the iv/VII/iii chord progression and practice soloing over it in all 12 keys, as a few pianists have recently told me they’ve been advised to do, let’s clear it up for you and get you back on track.
There is no such thing as a iv/VII/iii chord progression.
“Autumn Leaves” begins in the key of G major and modulates to E minor during the course of the ‘A’ section. That’s the charm of this particular harmonic progression. On the surface, it may seem easier to interpret it all in the key of E minor, but in the long run, doing so will make things unnecessarily difficult for you.
Let’s think about this for a second: Everyone from Bach to Charlie Parker has given the ii/V/I chord progression a prominent place in their music, so it therefore make sense to learn “Autumn Leaves” in a way that will help you learn hundreds of other tunes as well. If you view the opening chords as a ii/V/I chord progression, you’ll already understand the same progression in countless other songs. But if you view it as a iv/VII/iii, it won’t help you at all in other contexts.
I’m writing this to possibly save you many hours of confusion and frustration with your musical pursuits if you’ve been told that these chords are a iv/VII/iii chord progression. If we asked Herbie Hancock what a iv/VII/iii chord progression is, he wouldn’t know what we were talking about.
To use an analogy with language: If we’re reading a book that’s written in English and we come across the word “no,” which also exists in the Spanish language, isn’t it easier and more logical to consider “no” to be in English rather than the lone word in the book that’s in Spanish?
Now that we’ve got that out of the way… let’s move on with our lives, shall we?
I hope you’re doing well!
I ended up taking an unexpected month-long break from social media due to several factors. It began with a very busy week of rehearsing, etc., and then I got Covid. Even though the symptoms weren’t as bad as some people experience, it knocked me out for 10 days or so. Then, one of my sons broke his wrist and had surgery the day before Thanksgiving. This nullified our travel plans and meant that we needed to cook the Thanksgiving meal ourselves, on short notice. When I announced to the family that we could enjoy a basic holiday menu of Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, a vegetable, and pumpkin pie, my other son (the foodie of the family) piped up with, “That sounds great! We can start with a butternut squash soup, followed by water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, and then…” Gradually, our “simple” meal became a huge feast which was fun to prepare but wiped me out for yet a few more days.
There’s a parallel here with our music: When life gets in the way and keeps us away from the piano, the important thing is to keep the thread going by returning to the instrument with a positive, guilt-free attitude. We can immediately begin to enjoy our musical activities, just as I’m enjoying the process of sharing my thoughts with you right now. Keeping the flame alive.
And speaking of continuity, my recently postponed performance with vocalist Giacomo Gates has been rescheduled for Saturday, April 22nd, with shows at 7:00 and 9:00pm. It’s at Jazz on Main in Mount Kisco (Westchester County near New York City) and you can find more info here:
Giacomo Gates & Trio
To sum up all the points above: View each chord progression in a way that will help you move forward with your musical understanding, and keep your musical thread going in a positive and productive manner. One way to do this is to play with your musical friends, as I’ll be doing with Giacomo Gates on April 22nd.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
PS – I did manage to post a new Journey Through The Real Book video during this time. For some funky jazz/rock/R&B playing in the key of F#m, check out my take on Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveller:
Journey Through The Real Book #253
Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You'll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration