Welcome to our beginner's Jazz piano blog article, where we're about to embark on an exciting journey into the world of jazz licks! If you've ever dreamed of playing soulful, captivating Jazz improvisations on the piano, then you've come to the right place. In this article, we'll be unveiling five essential beginner jazz licks that will kickstart your jazz piano journey with style and finesse. These licks will introduce you to the beautiful art of jazz improvisation. So, grab your sheet music and let's dive into these quintessential jazz phrases that will unlock a whole new level of musicality on the keys.
Table Of Content:
Jazz Chord Progression 101: II-7, V7, Imaj7
A quick note before we dive right into the five beginner-friendly Jazz licks: all the following licks will be melodic lines over the chord progression of II-7, V7, Imaj7 in the key of C. If you are brand new to Jazz improvisation, the first thing you would want to know is that the II-7, V7, Imaj7 is such a commonplace in Jazz tunes that it is considered by many to be the harmonic backbone of Jazz. Hence, it would serve you well to practice improvising over the II-7 V7 Imaj7 progression early on in your Jazz learning journey. In the key of C, that would work out to be Dm7, G7, and Cmaj7.
Jazz Piano Lick 1: Chord Tones Are Your Best Friends
When delving into the world of jazz piano, understanding and utilizing chord tones in constructing your lines is essential for creating authentic and harmonically rich improvisations. This is because chord tones form the foundation of any harmony, providing stability and defining the character of a chord. By incorporating chord tones into your jazz licks, you'll develop a deep understanding of chord progressions and their tonal colors. As you might have noticed in this first installment of our jazz piano licks, it is constructed with a focus on the chord tones of the underlying harmony, allowing you to explore their melodic potential within a jazz context.
For example, in the first measure, an ascending arpeggio of the Dm7 chord is played, beginning on the third beat of the measure. The notes of the Dm7 arpeggio are: D, F, A, and C. This is the most straightforward way of using chord tones to construct improvisation lines, and that is to arpeggiate on the chord tones of the underlying chord.
You might have noticed the presence of the C# note in the first measure, which doesn't belong to Dm7 as one of its chord tones. To understand the purpose of the C# in the first measure, you should also know that another common improvisation technique is to make use of chromatic notes in constructing your lines. One simple way of using chromatic notes in your improvisations is the precede a target note (usually a chord tone) by a note that is chromatically above or below it. In this case, the 'D' note on the third beat of the measure is a chord tone of the Dm7 chord, and we are using this 'D' note as the target note, to precede it with a chromatic note below it, which gives us the 'C#' that you see in the first measure of the lick.
In the second measure, you will notice that the line is also constructed using the chord tones of the G7 chord. The chord tones of a G7 chord are: G, B, D, F. However, they are not used in this exact sequence, but instead, we can create more interesting melodic contours by playing around with the order in which the chord tones are presented. Unlike the first measure, in which the Dm7 chord tones are arpeggiated in a straight forward ascending arpeggio, the chord tones of the G7 in the second measure are presented in the following order instead: B, D, G, F.
You will notice that amongst the notes found in measure 2, there is a note that does not belong to the chord tones of G7, and that is the Gb note. As with measure 1, this is a chromatic note, but its function is slightly different than that of the chromatic note found in measure 1. In this measure, the Gb serves as a passing chromatic note to pass from the chord tone, 'G' to the chord tone, 'F'.
The third measure is similar to the first in that it is made up of an ascending arpeggio on the chord tones of Cmaj7, and that arpeggio is preceded by a chromatic note below the first note of the arpeggio. This chromatic note also happens to be a chord tone of the Cmaj7 chord as well.
However, in the fourth measure, we see the use of an 'A' note, which is not one of the chord tones of Cmaj7. It is important to know why this works despite not being a chord tone: depending on certain factors, it is often possible, at the improvisers discretion, to reharmonize a major seventh seventh chord with a major 6th chord. In this case, this means that the Cmaj7 chord may be substituted for a C6 at the players discretion. If you consider a C6 chord, it is made up of the chord tones C, E, G, A. This explains the presence of an 'A' note in measure 4.
Jazz Piano Lick 2: Rhythmic Permutation And Variations In Arpeggiation
In Jazz piano improvisation, rhythmic variations hold the power to transform a simple idea into a captivating musical journey. You could alter the rhythm of a lick or phrase, and in the process, breathe new life into old ideas, allowing you to extract greater musical mileage from the same melodic concept. By experimenting with syncopation, swing, accents, and other rhythmic devices, you'll unlock a world of possibilities to infuse your improvisations with rhythmic vitality and creativity. The lick shown above is not really a new lick, but a rhythmic variation on the first lick in our blog article. Here's another possible rhythmic variation of the first lick:
On first glance, it might seem like there's new notes added in the first half of the first measure of the above lick. However, these notes are still taken from the arpeggiated chord tones Dm7, the only difference being that the notes of the arpeggio are now presented in a different order and with a slight difference in their rhythm as it now includes a quarter note as opposed to all the chord tones being quavers.
The number of permutations that you can come up with is endless if you consider both rhythmic permutations and variations in arpeggiation patterns, so go on ahead, experiment with your own rhythmic variations and let your unique musical voice shine through your jazz piano improvisations.
Jazz Piano Lick 3: Adding Enclosures Around The Chord Tones
The next step to adding depth and color to your jazz piano improvisations is to master the art of using enclosures in your improvisations. Enclosures are a technique where surrounding a target note with neighboring notes to create melodic embellishments, which infuses your playing with a sense of unpredictability and sophistication. In the Jazz piano lick shown above, we explore the concept of adding enclosures around the chord tones. This is done by preceding a targeted chord tone with notes that are either chromatically or diatonically above or below it.
For example, in the first measure, the 'D' note is a chord tone of the Dm7 chord, and we precede it with a note that is chromatically below it, which is C#, followed by a note that is diatonically above it, which is E, and another note that is chromatically below it, C#. Hence, the sequence C#, E, C#, followed by the target note 'D' in the first measure.
The use of enclosures doesn't stop there. You will notice that the following three notes, A, C and A# are an enclosure of the next target note, B, which is a chord tone of G7.
If you were to continue analyzing the rest of the line, you will find that the use of enclosures continues till the end. The rest of the enclosures are labelled below:
Jazz Piano Lick 4: Harmonic Generalization With Pentatonic & Blues Scale
In this Jazz piano lick, we explore the potential the concept of harmonic generalization, where instead of strictly adhering to the chord tones of the underlying harmony, we reduce the complex harmony into a simplified key zone. For example, in the Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 progression, we could simplify how we think about the chord progression as being just 'in the key of C major', because all of these chords are diatonic to the key of C major.
Thereafter, we would play familiar structures that can be extracted from the C major scale, and play those structures without fully 'respecting' the chord tones of the underlying chord. There are several of these 'familiar structures' that we can tap upon but in this article, we will only be exploring the pentatonic and blues scale.
For instance, in the key of C major, the pentatonic or blues scales that pertain to the key of C major are:
the C major pentatonic scale (which is also the same as the A minor pentatonic scale), which consists of C, D, E, G, A
the C major blues scale (also the same as the A minor blues scale) , which consists of C, D, D#, E, G, A
These scales are really one and the same; they only differ by one additional D# in the C major blues scale. Think of the C major blues scale as a C major pentatonic scale with a passing chromatic note between the D and E notes
In constructing our lines, we will use only notes from these scales. You will notice this in the lick above, this is exactly what we have done. We used only the notes of the C major blues scale in the construction of the line.
This harmonic generalization technique empowers us to create fluid and expressive jazz licks that seamlessly navigate the harmonic landscape, adding a touch of bluesy soul and melodic freedom to our improvisations.
However, do note that this technique of harmonic generalization through pentatonic and blues scales can have some drawbacks. If you applied this technique on tunes whereby the harmonic structure of the tune mainly stays in one key, and without much use of non-diatonic harmony, then you will be stuck with this one scale to use over the whole tune, which makes the melodic material uninteresting. Hence, if you are just beginning to explore this technique of harmonic generalization, be sure to use it in tandem with outlining the chord tones of the harmony as well.
Jazz Piano Lick 5: Altered Scales & Melodic Minor On The V7 Chord
In the above Jazz piano lick, we explore the idea of using the altered scale on the G7 chord.
If you're new to the altered scale, it is a scale that is constructed by taking the chord tones of G7 (excluding the 5th) and putting those notes together with all the altered tension notes of G7. This would work out to be the following notes:
Chord tones of G7 (excluding the 5th) are: G, B, F
Altered tension notes of G7 are b9, #9, #11, b13. These work out to be Ab, A#, C#, and Eb respectively
If you put all those notes together into an ascending scale, the scale would spell: G, Ab, A#, B, C#, Eb, F
If you are a person who's used to thinking in terms of scale degrees, one could describe the scale as being: 1, b9, #9, 3, #11, b13, b7
However, these are still a pretty clumsy way of thinking about the scale. Perhaps, a more elegant way of thinking about the scale is to realize that it contains the exact same notes as an A melodic minor scale. So your train of thought is as follows:
You see a G7 chord symbol, you tell yourself, use G altered scale, which is the same as Ab melodic minor.
Now, condense this thought process a little more:
You see the chord symbol for a dominant seventh chord, and you tell yourself, play the melodic minor scale that is one semitone above the root note of that dominant seventh chord. For example,
If you see an A7 chord, improvise using the notes of a Bb melodic minor scale
If you see an Eb7 chord, improvise using the notes of an E melodic minor scale
If you see an C7 chord, improvise using the notes of an C# melodic minor scale
This is exactly how the lick above is constructed. You will notice that on the G7 chord, the melodic material draws its note choice primarily from the notes of an Ab melodic minor scale