Jazz Harmony for Piano: Volume 1

I constantly get questions about how to develop good jazz piano voicings. I’m currently writing a book about  this very topic. Here are a few examples from it, and how to practice them.

1. There are two basic versions of every voicing: one with the 3rd  (above the bass) on the bottom (the A version) and one with the 7th  (above the bass) on the bottom (the B version).  Good voice leading switches the two, so that the 3rd in the m7 chord resolves to the 7th in the next chord, and the 7th to the 3rd. Simply play this progression, and keep going with the pattern established; Am7 D7 Gmaj7, Gm7 C7 Fmaj7, Fm7 Bb7 Ebmaj7, Ebm7 Ab7 Dbmaj7, C#m7 F#7 Bmaj7, Bm7 E7 Amaj7.  Notice each series of three chords progresses downward in whole steps.

2. In this example, the same progression is played, but now in descending half  steps.

3. This is the same as #1, but with the 3rd and 7th reversed.

4. This is the same as #2, but with the 3rd and 7th reversed.

5. This is the same as #1, but with an added note, either the 9th or the 6th. The right hand is actually a great left hand voicing, too. So practice this with the hands reversed. Same with #6.

6. Same as #2 with the added note.

7. Now, we’ve added a 3rd or 7th to the left hand. This is called a “shell” voicing, and often serves in bebop piano as a minimal accompaniment to a linear right hand when there’s no bass player. We’ve changed the right hand so there’s no 3rd  or 7th. Notice that there’s NO duplication of notes. This makes the voicing more sophisticated and contemporary sounding.

8. Same concept as #7 with the harmonic progression of #2. I’ve transposed the voicings so they sound good even when they get lower. In general, avoid the 3rd sounding below the C below middle C.

– Bill Cunliffe

Jazz Harmony for Piano: Volume 2

Here are some ideas that allow you to play a given voicing in many different contexts. My feeling is, you don’t need that many materials, but you need what you have in all keys and situations.
Back in the ’40s, people derived voicings from upper extensions of chords (b9, sharp 11, etc.). That’s still useful today, but most modern voicings come out of scales. We could start with Dorian (for the minor 7th chord), Lydian (for the major 7th chord) and Lydian b7 (for the dominant). First of all, be comfortable with these in all keys. I tend to take a scale and do it in all keys once a day, then on following days rotate through all the other scales I want to learn, such as diminished, melodic minor ascending (jazz minor), altered, Locrian sharp 2 and half step/whole step. My good friend Bob Sheppard, on the other hand, takes a key and plays all his stuff in that key during a practice session. I think that’s great, especially for A, E, B and F sharp, scales I need to deal with more often than I do.
Let’s work on the first one, C Dorian. It’s very helpful to use this scale in all sorts of vertical arrays. Here are some of the most important ones. Pick the ones you enjoy the most, and go through all 12 keys with them.
Spend 10 minutes a day doing this, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your melodic and harmonic vocabulary expands. You should do these with the left hand as well as the right.Now, to expand your comping vocabulary, I’d suggest these patterns:

Do in all keys. I promise you’ll play better once you learn to do this. You’ll have more lines, too, because if you hear it in your left hand, it will come out in your right.
Start with the modes you use the most, and get those happening. Better to have this down in three modes than partially mastered in a bunch. Having them down in the six modes mentioned above is a great long-term goal.