Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 – “Sunny”


In this article we’re going to challenge your understanding of jazz arranging techniques. We’ll start off with a really common chord progression and then tweak it step-by-step, sprinkling in some of the common jazz arranging tricks of the pros. The chord progression is fairly simple – it’s from the Bobby Hebb tune “Sunny,” which has been covered by many jazz artists, jam bands, and soul/R&B groups. The first step, of course, is to listen to it. Check out the original (link above), but also Stevie Wonder’s version, Ella Fitzgerald/Tom Jones, and John Scofield/Pat Martino/Joey DeFrancesco.

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 – “Sunny”: The Original Chord Progression

Here’s the progression. The entire tune is pretty much just a 4-bar vamp of these chords (although most versions modulate to various keys during the performance).

Jazz Arranging 1

Play through this chord progression at the piano in time with your metronome. I’d suggest being able to play at about quarter note = 120 beats per minute.

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 – “Sunny”: Creating a “ii-V” Progression

Let’s start at the end. The B7 chord helps this 4-bar phrase repeat back to the Em7 chord by acting as a “V to i” progression. We can add a chord to turn measure 4 into a “ii – V” progression, ultimately resulting in a “ii – V – i” by the time we get back to Em7. Notice that we’re dealing with a minor “i” chord, not major. For this reason we’ll want to use a “ii – V” in minor mode, meaning our “ii” chord should be a “minor 7 flat 5” chord – F#min7 flat 5.

Jazz Arranging 2

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 – “Sunny”: Using Tritone Subs

Now we start getting to the fun (and advanced) stuff. We can use a tritone substitution wherever we see dominant 7th chords. Looking at our progression we see a G7 chord in measure 2 and a B7 chord in measure 4. Remember, the tritone substitution works because the guide tones (3rd and 7th) of both the original and tritone sub chord are the same. So we can insert a Db7 chord for the the G7, and an F7 chord for the B7.

Jazz Arranging 3

Of course, we don’t have to use a tritone sub in both places. We can choose to:

  1. Not use a tritone sub at all, or;
  2. Use a tritone sub in only one of the two measures, or;
  3. Use a tritone sub in both measures, or;
  4. Use both the original chord and the tritone sub in both measures in whichever order you prefer (which requires making each chord a single beat, as below).

Jazz Arranging 4

The lesson in this step is: consider how many harmonic possibilities you’ve just created!

Jazz Arranging Techniques 101 – “Sunny”: Inserting a Slick Chromatic Passing Chord

Now let’s add a chromatic passing chord in measure 1 to help us get from Em7 to Dm7 in measure 2. This is a common device used by jazz players. All that we’re really doing is inserting a minor 7th chord that ultimately creates three parallel minor 7th chords in a row. Of course, we need to adjust the rhythm a bit, too.

Jazz Arranging 5

Besides just comping, consider how many different options you have for soloing now that you’ve recognized the variety of chords you can choose from.

More to explore...


“Ain’t No Sunshine” and Drop-2 Voicings

The Bill Withers classic song “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a funky R&B standard that has also found a home in jazz circles. This is probably because the song has many traditional elements of jazz present in the song. For example, the song is based on an 8-bar modal cycle that features a minor blues-type of

Read More »

Willie’s Grand Piano And Studio Upgrade

I’ve been lucky enough to have some nice pianos in my life. My old studio piano was a 1925 Kanabe 6′ grand piano. My Kanabe and I have had some great memories together. In fact I wrote and rehearsed the songs for both of my albums on that piano. Now my Kanabe lives in my

Read More »
Jazzedge Teachers

Welcome Paul Buono

Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit musician, sideman, composer/arranger, middle school teacher, and even a brief stint as a… lawyer(?)!   Willie:  What got you started on the piano? Paul:  My grandfather was a very good

Read More »

Organize Your Piano Practice

The hardest part of practicing the piano is finding the time.  In our busy world, it is not always easy to set aside 30 minutes a day to practice the piano. In addition, the fact that the piano is often practiced solo (not in a group setting) only exacerbates the situation. I’ve learned over the

Read More »
Piano Tips

Chord Progressions You Must Know

One of the first overwhelming concepts you encounter when you begin studying jazz piano is the number of chords and chord progressions. There are a lot. A real lot. But when you really break it down there are actually a finite number of chords. And to be perfectly honest with you, the VAST majority of

Read More »

Rhythm Exercises – Part 3 (Advanced)

In this article, our third in the “Rhythm Exercises” series, we’ll be looking at some advanced and challenging rhythmic exercises. These are really meant to test your rhythmic understanding and execution, so if they’re too difficult, don’t worry. Start off with our Part 1 and Part 2 rhythmic exercises, master those, and then build up

Read More »


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I haven’t had a chance to check this yet as, I checked this email on a mobile device but, I’m excited to receive this because I’d imagine this is the, mysterious, movement in chords I’ve thought of in my head for so long.

    I’m excited to try it out!

  2. The original version of “Sunny” doesn’t have the iim7 in front of the V7 in the 2nd measure. It seems to go Em – G13 – CMaj7 -F#m7(b5) -B7

JPC glossary / key

  • RH – right hand
  • LH – left hand
  • HT – hands together
  • CM – contrary motion (to move in opposite directions)
  • Harmonically – to play as chords (all notes together at once)
  • Melodically – to play as a melody (single note) – arpeggiate
  • R7, R3, R37 – chord shells (Root-7th, Root-3rd, Root-3rd-7th respectively)
  • bpm – beats per minute. Refers to the metronome setting