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I was reading http://www.thejazzpianosite.com/jazz-piano-lessons/jazz-chords/passing-chords/

The article writes:

Tritone (of next chord) | CMaj7 - A♭7 | Dm7 |

Is this a mistake? As far as I am concerned, it's not possible for a minor7 chord to contain an interval of six semitones. Because of that, you can't perform tritone substition on Dm7.

  • As JohnBelzaguy explains, there's no substitution happening because the Ab7 isn't replacing anything. The Ab7 is a passing chord, and that's the best way to think about it. It's not meant to replace the function of the Dmin. However, in jazz, it's not unheard of to perform tritone substitutions with minor chords. For example, over the progression | Dmin | G7 | CMaj |, we might hear | Dmin | Abmin | CMaj |. Chick Corea is a pro at this. It's still a tritone sub in the sense that Richard describes. But it's arguably still a conventional tritone sub with the form | G7sus | Db7sus | CMaj |. – jdjazz May 19 at 4:53
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This article is about passing chords, not tritone substitutions. The excerpt you showed,

Tritone (of next chord) | CMaj7 - A♭7 | Dm7 |

simply indicates that one option for inserting a passing chord between Cmaj7 and Dm7 is to insert a chord, Ab7, that is a tritone away from the next (or second) chord, Dm7.

| improve this answer | |
  • Great answer. This progression is not a tritone substitution because the Ab7 isn't replacing anything. It's being added in as a passing/approach chord between two harmonically important chords (CMaj and Dmin). – jdjazz May 19 at 4:45
  • The question is why one would choose a passing chord that is tritone away from the next chord. I think the reason is that it can indeed be heard as a tritone sub of D7 leading to (Dm7,G7), even if G7 never comes. – Matt L. May 19 at 18:25
  • @MattL. I just answered the question at face value based on the article provided but I do not care for some of the passing chord recommendations in the article. You make a good point, by looking ahead the Ab7 is the sub V of the (G7) in C. – John Belzaguy May 19 at 18:39
  • Yes, my intention was not at all to criticize your answer, which is indeed right to the point. I just thought it interesting to see if there's some reason why such a passing chord actually works. The cookbook recipe "a tritone away from the target chord" doesn't really make much sense to me. – Matt L. May 19 at 19:03
  • @MattL. No worries, I didn’t get that impression at all, just adding my point of view and even gave your answer a +1 because I thought it was insightul – John Belzaguy May 19 at 19:58
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The current use of the term "tritone substitution" is really a conflation of two separate ideas: one in which two chords share a tritone, and another in which two chords have roots that are a tritone apart.

When we're dealing with chords like dominant sevenths, both definitions apply: a C7 chord has the tritone E/B♭, which happens to be the same tritone involved in the chord built on the root a tritone away, G♭7 (which has B♭ and F♭). But when we're dealing with something like a minor triad, only the latter definition applies, because there is no tritone in the chord.

So in an instance like this one with a minor seventh chord, since there's no tritone in the chord, we just build a chord a tritone away. Since we're looking at Dm7, that tritone away is A♭7.

(See also Must a tritone substitution use a dominant functioning seventh chord?)

| improve this answer | |
  • I would take issue with the definition you've provided of tritone substitution, but only because it leaves out the element of 'substitution.' Simply having two chords a tritone apart isn't enough to qualify as a substitution, and the progression in question (CMaj - Ab7 - Dmin) is a good example of this. Before any modification, the original progression is | CMaj | Dmin |. The Ab7 isn't a substitution because it's not replacing anything. It's simply a passing chord/approach chord that we add in, which a tritone away from the target chord (Dmin). – jdjazz May 19 at 4:48
  • @jdjazz For what it's worth, I agree with you 100%. But my experience is that people are using this term more and more in the "root distance" sense, which is at odds with its original intention. – Richard May 19 at 6:01
  • Yes, and I'm guilty of that. If playing Dmin-G7-CMaj as Dmin-Abmin-CMaj, I'll call the change a tritone sub, even though Abmin doesn't contain a tritone interval. But there's no doubt it's a substitution, because I'm replacing G7 with Abmin--the G7 goes away and we substitute Abmin in its place. In the progression | CMaj Ab7 | Dmin |, there's no substitution happening because the Ab7 isn't replacing anything. It would be a tritone sub if the original progression were | CMaj D7 | Dmin |. But if the original progression is just CMaj-Dmin, then squeezing in Ab7 isn't a substitution/replacement. – jdjazz May 19 at 12:09
  • In other words, if we wanted to come up with a term for this scenario (which isn't really necessary, but could be instructive), it might be called something like "tritone approach chord" or "tritone passing chord" instead of "tritone substitution." I think you've got a great explanation for what the term 'tritone' means in this context, but I think any answer to this question needs to clarify to the asker that this situation doesn't qualify as a substitution. – jdjazz May 19 at 12:48
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I would like to add to the existing answers a possible motivation for the chord Ab7 as a "passing chord" between Cmaj7 and Dm7. The "reason" that it is a tritone away from the target chord doesn't really explain anything, at least not to me. What I hear is indeed a tritone substitution, but of course not of Dm7 (because that chord isn't substituted), but of D7. That D7 chord is a secondary dominant of G7, and G7 could follow that Dm7 chord to make it a full II-V in C major. However, even if G7 doesn't follow, the Dm7 as a first part of that standard II-V unit can represent that unit a certain way because our ears are so used to hearing it. Note that Dm7 could also be heard as a G7sus4 sound (without root). So when listening to that progression I do hear Ab7 as a tritone sub leading to the II-V unit Dm7-G7, even if G7 never comes, and that why it works well, at least for me.

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Tritone (of next chord) | CMaj7 - A♭7 | Dm7 |

First look at the plain progression...

Original Chord Progression | CMaj7 | Dm7 ||

...to that the passing chord is added (generically I call it "?")

Original Chord Progression | CMaj7 ? | Dm7 ||

...so A♭7 fills in the ? as the passing chord. It's root A♭ is a tritone away from the target chord Dm7. (This is not a case of tritone substitution, another jazz harmony idea, the similar naming could be confusing.)

enter image description here

The author is coy about the voicing of the passing chords...

Note: That both the chord and the bass-line movement are important when transitioning between chords. You want both to be smooth. I will have more to say about this in future lessons.

A very quick review of the chart shows all the passing chords can be voiced so that the bass will either be a common tone with one of the two chords of the simple two chord progression or a chromatic half step between them. All other voices should move the minimal distance.

All the basses probably should be:

  • C C D
  • C C# D
  • C Db D♮

Except for...

Approach #1 (diatonic) | CMaj7 - Em7 | Dm7 ||

...where the bass should probably be C D D

I'm taking an approach the bass of the passing chord should not anticipate (be the same tone) as the bass of the target chord.

| improve this answer | |
  • -1 because, to me, it seems like everything in your answer above "the author is coy..." is already explained by the other two answers. In my mind, multiple answers that repeat the same info tends to clutter the page and make it harder to find the correct info. Small clarifications that don't change the meaning of an existing answer are best posted as comments to an existing answer, I think. I suggest starting your answer with: "One addition to the other answers: the author is being coy..." But the info about bass movement doesn't by itself answer the Q, which is why I downvoted. – jdjazz May 19 at 16:15
  • I guided the OP through how to read the article, and follow through with the implied voicing aspect. I was addressing how to read the article. But, you can downvote whatever why you want. – Michael Curtis May 19 at 16:28
  • In my view, the guidance directs the asker's attention to the same facts/considerations as the other answers describe. – jdjazz May 19 at 16:41

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