Jazz piano: how it works

Jazz Piano
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Here are the chords:

F | D7 | Gm7 | C7 |
F | Dm | Bb6 | C7 |
F | F7 | Bb | Bbm|
F,D7|Gm7,C7| F | F |

This tutorial gives an overview of some of the techniques used in jazz piano. I use a simple 16-bar chord sequence to demonstrate five basic concepts. These include chord extension and substitution, using the left hand to create rhythm and harmony, and the use of scales in improvisation.

In subsequent tutorials I’ll look at some specific jazz piano techniques developed from this improvisation.

Firstly, take a look at the chords themselves, and try to create richer chords. There are two ways to do this: extensions and substitution. Extending chords means adding notes to the basic chord, and are a useful way of making much jazzier sound. For example, in this improvisation I took the basic chord of F and experimented by changing it to other chords of F (such as F major 7, F6 with an added ninth, and F11).

Substitution is a more dramatic way of making a chord sequence more interesting. It’s important to avoid sequences that sound too simple for jazz, and we can do this by completely replacing a chord. Tritone substitution is one useful substitution technique to use when playing jazz.

Secondly, we need to use the left hand to give the sequence clarity. The left hand defines the harmony, and we use it to give the basic identity of the chords in the sequence. It’s often best to use shell chords, since the large number of overtones further down the keyboard can lead to full chords sounding muddy.

The third basic concept is the role of the left hand in suggesting a sense of tempo and rhythm. It is not, however, necessary for the left hand to do all of the work here such as in ‘walking bass’ left hand parts. Try using ‘stabby’ chords to hint at rhythm, and your listener’s brain should fill in the rest!

Fourthly, it’s important to think about what you’re playing with your right hand. Pentatonic and blues scales are a very good place to start. In this example, I mainly use F and A minor pentatonic and the F blues scale. The handy thing about using these scales is that you can play pretty much any note from them with almost any of the chords in the sequence. If you’re a beginner, you might want to start out just playing one note. Once you’ve mastered that, try adding in more notes to create an improvised melody.

Finally, a crucial aspect of improvisation is making both hands work together. If you’ve ever had any classical training, a really good way to do this is to take a look at classical music. Baroque music in particular – in the tutorial I use some Bach – will force you to use both hands together with good fingering technique. When you return to jazz piano and improvisation you should find that your technique has improved massively.

If you enjoyed this video and you’re starting out with improvisation, you might be interested in my book, How to Really Play the Piano. It’s full of handy stuff on improvisation taught through blues piano, harmony and chords.

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