Why Jazz and what is Jazz Piano Improvisation?
Playing Jazz is one of the most open mediums of expression in music, and it allows for the greatest amount of freedom and creativity. In a typical Jazz performance, the players take full blown improvisations, as opposed to traditional sheet music reading.
Learn how to improvise a simple solo jazz piano texture
That having said, it can be quite the challenge to craft out a learning path in Jazz improvisation. After all, being able to improvise is not as straight forward as reading notes from a sheet music - a player has to come up with the notes on the spot and play the musical ideas as they come to mind. The question that naturally comes to the mind for someone who is just starting out would be, "How do you know which notes to play?"
Simple Techniques for Mastering Jazz Piano Improvisation
To know which notes to play, one would first have to know about chords. This is because improvised melodic material is primary derived from chord tones. The basic chords are:
Suspended 4th Triads
Beyond that, one would also have to know the following seventh chords:
Major Seventh Chord
Minor Seventh chord
Dominant Seventh Chord
Half-Diminished Seventh Chord (Minor Seventh Flat 5)
Diminished Seventh Chord
To be able to improvise effectively, one should be generally familiar enough with these chords to be able to quickly and accurately answer questions such as:
"What is the 3rd of F-7 ('-7' is the chord symbol for Minor Seventh Chord, hence F-7 refers to F minor seventh chord)?" Answer: Ab
"What is the 5th of Gø7? ('ø7' is the chord symbol for half diminished seventh chord, hence, Gø7 would refer to G half diminished seventh chord). Answer: Db
For this tutorial we will be using a solo jazz piano improvisation of the Jazz standard "It Could Happen To You" to study the six voicings that you very easily apply in your jazz improvisations.
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Voicing #1:Shell Voicing
Shells: Shell voicings consist of the 1st and 7th of the chord
Example 1: 0:12, F-7 in 1st measure of the displayed score. In the left hand part, a shell voicing played as is, no tricks here.
Example 2: 0:21, F-7 in 3rd measure of the displayed score. Shell voicing played in the left hand part, but with the notes of the shell voicing fleshed out over time rather than having all notes of the shell voicing played at once. Fleshing out the notes of the voicing over time may not come intuitively to someone who is relatively new to voicings, but it can bring more variety to your improvisation.
Voicing #2:Guide Tone Voicing
Guide Tones: Guide tones refer to the 3rd and 7th of a chord
Example 1 @ 1:05, G7 in 4th measure, beat 3 of the displayed score. Guide tone played in the left hand. Straight forward application, no tricks
Example 2 @ 0:13, Db7 in 2nd measure of the displayed score. Guide tone voicing played as is, but do note how the guide tone is sounded before the bass note later in the same measure, this can work to break up the monotony of the accompaniment pattern for some who might be stuck with the mentality that bass notes must always be sounded first.
Voicings #3:Shell + Guide Tone Voicing
Shells + Guide Tones: consists of 1st, 3rd and 7th of a chord
Example 1 @ 1:27, C7 in measure 4 of displayed score. The Shell voicing of C7 consists of C and Bb, and combined with Guide tones of C7 (E and Bb), the voicing you get is C, E, Bb (spelt from bottom up) Notice how the notes of the voicing fleshed out over time rather than sounding all three notes of the voicing at once
Voicing #4:Guide Tone + 1 Note Above The Guide Tones
Guide Tones + 1 note above the guide tones; usually the 5th of the chord, or some kind of tension.
Example 1 @ 0:33, C7 in 4th measure, beat 1, left hand. The guide tones of C7 are E and Bb, and the note above (Eb) would be a tension b9 note.
Example 2@ 0:22, Bb7 in the 4th measure. The guide tones of Bb7 are Ab and D, and the note above the guide tones is G (tension 13). Notice how the voicing is 'shared' between the hands; RH plays one note of the guide tone and the tension note while LH plays another note of the guide tone. This might not occur intuitively to some who have the idea that melody has to be in one hand and accompaniment in the other, but it may open up possibilities in what can be played.
Voicing #5:Guide Tone + 1 Note In Between The Guide Tones
Guide Tones + 1 note in between the guide tones (usually the 5th of the chord, or some kind of tension)
Example 1 @ 0:43, Bb7 in 2nd measure of displayed score. The guide tones of Bb7 are Ab and D. The note in between the guide tones is Cb (tension b9). Once again, notice how the voicing is 'shared' between the hands'
Voicing #6:Guide Tone + 1 Note In Between The Guide Tones + 1 Note Above The Guide Tones
Guide Tones + 1 note in between + 1 note above.
Example 1 @ 0:34. C7 in measure 4 of displayed score, right hand part. The guide tones of C7 are E and Bb. The note in between the guide tone is Ab (tension b13) The note above the guide ton is Eb (tension) #9
Conclusion of Learning Techniques for Mastering Jazz Piano Improvisations
There are many other voicings apart from the six in this article, but these six voicings represent the basic 'bread-and-butter' voicings that are repeatable techniques you can apply across all your improvisations. Be sure to try them out, experiment with different rhythms. If you are looking for a jazz piano teacher to super charge your learning journey and plan out your learning in a progressive manner, click here to book two free trial lessons.