Killer Joe is a classic standard, a good tune to call during a jam session, and the tune for our jam on July 7th. It centers around the key of C, and is an AABA song form. The bridge usually provides the most challenge and I’ll give you some suggestions on how to approach the bridge from a scalar perspective and from a traditional chordal perspective

The A sections are very straight forward and are alternating dominant chords of C7 and Bb7. Most lead sheets list the chords as C13 and Bb13. Remember, 11 and 13 chords are still dominant chords, but are just extended to include the 2nd, 4th, and 6th degree of the scale. However, the 3rd and 7th of each chord are still the most important chord tones to truly define the chords and   to line up with the rhythm section when soloing. If you spell out each chord and the 9, 11, and 13 extensions for the C13 chord you get C-E-G-Bb-D-F-A, and for the Bb13 you have Bb-D-F-Ab-C-Eb-G. Notice that the extensions nearly spell out the other chord, one whole step away (In C13 = Bb-D-F-A & Bb13 = Ab-C-Eb-G) with 3 common tones in the C13 and 2 common tones in  Bb13. John Coltrane was masterful in extending most dominant chords through the 11th or 13th and by practicing the A sections of Killer Joe by extending the chords, you may be reminded of the Coltrane ‘Sheets of Sound.’

Killer Joe bridgeThe B section of Killer Joe is a series of altered ii-V7 chords in the first 4 measures and a pivot up a half-step for the next measure, down a half step the next measure, and then the repeat of an altered ii-V7 in the last 2 measures of the B section.

You can successfully quote or borrow tones from the melody during your solo and note the whole-step/half-step scalar structure of the B section melody. By practicing that scale beginning with G concert pitch, like the melody, going up a whole-step to A, then to Bb, then to C, then to C# (Db), then to Eb, and ending on E natural, you have a scale to practice. You’ll just need to continue the pattern, by adding F# to get back to G concert and start over again. I recommend practicing that scale up and down, to see how uniform it is and how it does fit over the B section quite well.

The other approach is to outline the chords using 1-3-5-7, but accounting for the altered chord tones when building the altered ii-V7 chords. Either approach works well during solos. The key is to nail the rhythm and make your lines interesting and perhaps tie in ideas you created during the A sections to really tell a story.

Ultimately, you can fall back on a C Blues Scale during the A sections, or allude to some Blues Scale ideas, while working around the extended dominant chords during the A section. For the advanced players, I would suggest studying and practicing intervalic concepts, as illustrated in Walt Weiskopfs’ “Intervalic Imporovisation – A Player’s Guide.”

-Eric Koppa