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Analysis & Tips: Body And Soul

Is Body And Soul the greatest ballad of them all? It certainly has a strong claim to that title. Some even hail it as the greatest jazz standard bar none. . .

(such as the knowledgeable folk at, who place it at #1 in their list of the top 1000 standards.)

Here’s what critic Phil Johnson has to say in his book Lives Of The Great Songs:

"Pain and loss, darkness and death, love and life gone sour (…) Body and Soul has become the iconic reduction of all those late-night crying-into-your-beer jazz ballads. It's a standard for all saxophonists not because it tests their technical skills but because it challenges their powers of emotional expression.

Written by Johnny Green, (who was also responsible for Out Of Nowhere and I Cover The Waterfront, among others) in 1930, the song was immediately popular with musicians and listeners alike. There are many classic recordings of the tune, encompassing the gamut of jazz styles (Coleman Hawkins' landmark 1940 performance and John Coltrane’s very different reading from twenty years later are among the standouts), and it’s a must-know ballad to have in your repertoire for jam sessions and gigs.

Body And Soul is generally considered to be a fairly challenging standard to solo over. Let’s break it down a little bit and take a closer look at what’s going on. Hopefully, with a little insight, you’ll find that this tune is not as daunting as it might initially appear.

The form is a straightforward A-A-B-A. The usual key is Db. The A section is in a single key (Db), albeit with a few common-to-jazz harmonic embellishments which we will highlight below. The B section moves through two keys, the first of which is a semitone up from the key of the A section (D), while the second is a semitone down from the key of the A section (C).

When approaching the chord progressions of jazz standards it is always useful have three questions in mind:

  • What is the key?

  • Which of the chords are expected and unaltered for that key (diatonic, in other words)?

  • Which of the chords are not expected (non-diatonic) in this key, and what is their function?

With that in mind, here is our A section:

The blue sections are entirely diatonic. The pink sections represent the chords that are not diatonic to Db. It might seem like there are too many pink sections for me to be saying this is all in the key of Db...

Well here's the thing: in jazz harmony it is extremely common to see certain diatonic chords altered to become dominant 7 chord-types. Which ones? Most commonly iii and vi. You'll find that happening in every jazz tune. Less common (but still nothing out of the ordinary) is the same change (making the chord a dominant 7th) to ii IV and I. So with that in mind, looking again at our Body And Soul 'A' section we can see that those pink chords are mostly explained by that principle: we have instances of chords VI, IV and iii being adjusted to become dominant 7th chords.

This is all about tension and release, or more explicitly, increasing the pull to the next chord by strengthening the cadences. The only exception is the biii dim7 chord in bar 4, you'll remember we highlighted exactly the same chord movement (iii - biii dim7 - ii) in our previous standard, All The Things You Are

One thing is different in the second A section, the last chord is an A7, setting up a V - I resolution to D major for the B section:

Again, what we see is a similar mix of blue and pink sections. The only thing that's new here is in bar 2 where we encounter a minor version of the IV chord paired a dom7 chord a perfect 4th up (I've notated it as '-iv - bVII7'). As with the biii dim7 chord, the minor iv chord is something we highlighted in All The Things You Are (and believe me, we'll be seeing the same devices cropping up time and time again).

The B section wraps up with the I7 chord shifting down in semitones to get to that Bb7 chord, which you may remember is the VI7 chord of our A section key (Db) and leads us back to the Ebm7 chord with a strong cadence.

You might be in a position where you are thinking, 'okay, we've explained all the changes, but how does that help me to know what to play over them?'

The answer to that is: stick with us and keep an eye on what we have coming up. (And the best way to do that is subscribe to our newsletter!) We'll be covering all this and more in due time. For now, use what you already know. If you're fairly new to jazz, a great starting point is to use the scale of the key to improvise. So, for Body And Soul you would play from the Db major scale all through the A sections, the D major scale for bars 1-4 of the B section, and the C major scale for the remainder of the B section. Try to use your ear and play melodically when using this approach. Some notes will work better over certain chords. Another approach I highly recommend on this tune is to experiment with using the Bb minor blues scale over the A section.

Of course, what's really crucial to jazz improvisation and which we haven't mentioned yet is a grasp of jazz language. We will be focusing on this in our next post: the first of our 'Listen And Learn' lessons. These will be a regular part of the Backing Jam blog schedule. In each lesson we will learn directly from the recordings of great improvisors. Kicking off the series, we'll be looking at some of the things Grant Green, Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker play on All The Things You Are.



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