I’ve just completed another arrangement for the Lenoir Saxophone Ensemble (Robert George, David Kirby, Patrick Brown, and Mike Myers). I heard them perform last November and was really impressed with the group. Having worked with a couple of them in the past, I knew they were excellent musicians, but their playing was incredibly tight. They certainly don’t slap their music together, they take a lot of time and effort into rehearsing and getting their music to sound good. That means I can write what I think will sound cool and not worry so much about how challenging it will be to play.
Here’s my take on the jazz standard Just Friends for them. It’s a MIDI realization, so you will need to pretend you’re hearing four saxophonists playing with expression and style, rather than a computer. Brownie points to anyone who can name all the quotes that ended up in this arrangement.[audio:http://www.wilktone.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Just-Friends.mp3|titles=Just Friends]
While Just Friends is a tune that most jazz musicians are probably already familiar with, it is very interesting harmonically. Most notably, the tonic chord of the tune really doesn’t get strongly cadenced until almost the very end of the tune. It does, however, show up in the 5th measure, but approaches it from an interesting direction. Since my arrangement is in the key of C major, my example is in that key.
Notice that the first chord is the IV, which then becomes a minor iv, leading to what would be a ii-V in a different key. Instead of resolving to Eb major, this chord pattern resolves to the I chord. So what does this progression have to do with a plagal cadence?
If you’re not already familiar with the plagal cadence by name, you’ve probably heard it many times at the end of church hymns on the text, “Amen.” A plagal cadence is simply IV-I, in the key of C it is F to C. It’s a very common chord pattern in jazz, but the Just Friends example is modified in an interesting way. In order to fully understand how Bb7 to Cmaj7 can be called a plagal cadence we need to consider a variation of the plagal cadence in a minor key and also some typical jazz chord substitutions.
First, a minor plagal cadence is exactly like one in a major key, except that both chords are minor, iv-i. Staying in the key of my example, F minor to C minor. Add a little modal mixing into it and we can use an F minor chord and resolve it to a major chord, iv-I. But what about the Bb7 between these two chords?
The harmonic language of jazz standards utilizes chord patterns of ii-V all the time and frequently out of the key center of the tune itself, temporarily tonicizing something other than the I chord. As it turns out, any time you have a minor 7th chord (say Fmin7) you can follow this chord with a dominant 7th chord a perfect 4th above the root (Bb7). In other words, pretend that minor 7th chord is a ii and throw in what would be the V7 after it. Regardless of how this progression is followed, it usually sounds good and gives an improviser another chord change to play over. Likewise, if you have a dominant 7th chord, you can set that chord up by adding a minor 7th chord a perfect 4th below the root. Or another way to look at it, if you have a 7th chord think of it as a V7 and you can set it up with what would be the ii7 just before it. It doesn’t usually matter what the actual key of your tune is because this sort of chord motion still maintains the overall direction of chord motion.
Getting back to a minor plagal cadence, moving from Fmin to Cmaj7 can be thought of as a an example of mixing the minor mode (iv) with major (I). Following the substitution example I just mentioned, we can consider the iv chord as if it were a ii in Eb and insert the Bb7 between for a little added harmonic movement.
This is why some jazz musicians will also discuss a bVII7 to I progression (e.g., Bb7 to Cmaj7) also as a minor plagal cadence. The iv chord isn’t present, but if you wanted to spice up your progression you could just as easily add it and the overall harmonic direction won’t change.
As an aside, you can also go in the reverse direction. If you have two chords that taken together create a ii-V, you can simplify this progression by simply using only one of those chords. For example, Dmin7 to G7 to Amaj7 can become just Dmin7 to Amaj7 or G7 to Amaj7. The general “gravity” of the chord progression is still present, but with a slightly different sound due to the simplification of the changes.
While not as common as simply ii-V7-I progressions, this minor plagal cadence (and its variations) are very frequent in jazz standards. They are definitely worth becoming familiar with as improvisers and composers as it will add another interesting sound into your palate to draw from.