–A Thought Process, Article by Jazz Artist Ken Cowan

Have you ever been to a jazz concert or just listening to a jazz CD and asked yourself “What kind of Atlanta jazz musician answers audience questions.crazy chords is that piano player playing?” Did the harmony of that performance peak your interest enough to make you say to yourself:” I wanna  play like that!”  Have you been searching for a way to become a better Jazz accompanist? Maybe I can help you.
I would like to help you develop a process for learning and playing awesome voicings and comping techniques. What you will find here are basic concepts. This article will not answer all your jazz piano questions but it will get you started on your quest. I meet college piano majors all the time that tell me “I’d like to expand my jazz horizons and literature base.” There is some “Jazz literature” available such as transcriptions of Bill Evans, Art Tatum, and even Oscar Peterson, etc… but simply memorizing someone else’s improvisations will not take you very far down the road of jazz piano proficiency. It certainly won’t teach you how to comp chord changes for a bebop tenor player.

 Use Your Ears

Do you want to relieve fear associated with the word “jazz”?jazz Pianist at Atlanta Wedding

    1.    You’ve got to listen to jazz  (Cd’s, mp3’s, itunes…) I have many influences: Hal Galper, Ronnie Mathews, Kenny Drew, Kenny Barron etc… I also love saxophone players such as Dexter Gordon, Phil Woods, Stan Getz, Micheal Brecker etc… I was influenced by them because I soaked up their music with my ears. It’s all in there (my head and heart).

    2.    Learn to use your ears as you play: Not everyone is blessed with perfect pitch but you should develop perfect relative pitch. When I first began playing professionally, just about everyone that hired me expected me to learn “their chord changes” quickly with a minimum of rehearsal time. In other words, I had to show up and produce piano/organ/keyboard parts instantly, usually without charts, and remember them for the job as well. If I spent my time taking too detailed notes and making charts, then we would not have time to get through all the tunes for the gig. As I became more proficient and began to work more, there would be no rehearsals at all. I had to show up and play the job. Listening is essential to a piano player.

Getting Started

It is best if you start by making sure you know the following things: Know how to read music. Reading music is no substitute for developing your ear. However, learning to read and write the music “language” is also essential.

    1.    Know the names of notes in Treble and Bass clefs and where they are on the keyboard.

    2.    Accidentals and how they work together to effect notes & staves

    3.    Be able to recognize time values of notes, rests, and know time signatures. (How to interpret 4/4.)

    4.    Know the Key Signatures of all major and minor keys and the scales that go with them. Know the relative minor of each key.

    5.    Have a basic understanding of chord structure. When playing with a group, the piano player very seldom uses the root. You have to “stay out of the way of the bass player”. You will eventually learn orchestration on the fly and instant arrangement. Creating interesting textures is achieved by how well you can spell chords and perform complex rhythms. Learn as many inversions as possible. Learn how to voice a stack of thirds without using every chord tone along the way. Being able to find the Maj. 2nd, 4th, Maj. 6th, Maj. and min.7th  above any given root is essential.

In the examples given in the appendix, look for these relationships and begin to assimilate them into your thinking. Learn these exercises in all 12 keys. These are the basics for forming your “Jazz Piano Voicings Thought Process.”

Things That Will Help

  •     Practice, more practice, and practice precisely- Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Do some wood-shedding in all 12 keys.

  •     Access to fake books and lead sheets. The Real Book and the Jamey Aebersold series are awesome published sources for lead sheets. There are also many other published and unpublished fake books available at good prices. With this being said, learning tunes by ear will take you further down the road to success than reading out of a fake book all the time. Join http://www.scribd.com/. There are a lot of fake books here.

  •     A good music theory text book as a reference. If you have not taken Music Theory 101, go to amazon.com and search “music theory text book”. There are tons of good inexpensive texts that will be good for you.

  •     Jam with other musicians. Get to know a bass player with the same goals as you. If you can’t do that, buy BAND IN A BOX and learn how to use it. http://www.pgmusic.com/news.htm

Basic Chord Structure

In today’s basic jazz vocabulary, we deal with 5 basic chord types (if we stack in 3rds up to the 7th): Here are some examples in the key of C

1. The Major7 chord

Root, Maj3, 5th, Maj7

Ex: the I and IV chords in a major key. (C and F in the key of C.)

Symbol: Cmaj7 depending on the texture you’re going for, Cmaj7 has a Maj3 & Maj7.

2. The Dominant7 chord

Root, Maj3, 5th, min7

Like the V chord in a major key.

Symbol: G7

G7 has a Maj3 & min7.

3. The Minor7 chord

Root, min3, 5th, min7

Like the II, III, VI chords in a major key.

Symbol: Dmin7

Dmin7 always has a min3 & min7

4. The Half-diminished7 chord

Root, min3, b 5, min7

Like the VII chord in a major key or the II chord in a minor key.

Symbol: Bmi7 b 5

Bmin7 b 5  has a min3, b5 & min7

5. The Fully-diminished7 chord

Root, min3, b 5, bb7

Like the VII chord in a melodic minor key.

Symbol: Bdim7 or BO7

Bdim7 always has a min3, b 5 & bb7

Basic Tones – Qualifiers – Color Tones

The 5 chord types are made up of 3 types of notes: Basic Tones, Qualifiers, and Color tones. They each do very distinctive things for the ear within the context of the chord.

Qualifiers- The 3rd and the 7th of each chord.

I like to call this the flavor of the chord. These tones determine the function of the chord. It’s the altering of the 3rd and 7th that determine whether the chord is Major7, Dominant7, or Minor7.

Basic Tones- The root and 5th of the chord.

The root gives the chord a name. The root and 5th both act as reference points for the ear. These reference points help your ears differentiate between the changes brought about by variations of the 3rd and 7th. However, in the diminished chords the b 5 begins to act as a color tone instead of a basic tone. We’ll get to these color tones a little later in this article.

Root position exercise for the 5 chord types.

Exercise 1

1. Pick a key

2. Play the following as both chords and arpeggios

Xma: 1-3-5-8-5-3-1

Xma7: 1-3-5-7-5-3-1

X7: 1-3-5-b7-5-3-1

Xmi7: 1-b3-5-b7-5-b3-1

Xmi7 b 5: 1-b3-b5-b7-b5-b3-1

Xdim7 1-b3-b5-bb7-5-b3-1

3. When ready, move to a new key, eventually through all 12 keys

4. Isolate and play just one chord type through all keys.

    Color Tones- 9, 11,  #11,  13

     After the major7, you can continue up the chord to the 9, 11, #11, and the 13th. A great way to learn to hear them is to learn to sing them. Don’t play them on the piano to hear and sing them. For example, I’m trying to learn to hear the sound of the #11 on a major seventh chord. I could play the notes C-E-G-B (a C major 7th chord) and then hear & sing the #11 without including it in my piano voicing. Repeat this process with other color tones. When you do get this far, rather than moving to other chords, review all the major chord tones for a while. Once you reach this point, things will become easier because now you have quite a few chord tones to compare to one another.

As you learn more colors, more differences between each of them become apparent, creating a definitive idea of what each color is. That’s essentially what we’re aiming to do with chord tones. Just keep repeating the process described above and learn your color tones. You will begin to hear/see your colors before you actually play them in a passage. This process will refine your ear and your imagination will run wild. You will be original and you will develop your own voice on the piano. Yeah… Bill Evan’s transcriptions are pretty cool, but you will go further if you develop your own understanding. That’s what Bill Evans did in the first place. There are many chord tones to practice over many chords, so here’s a suggestion to approaching all these chord tones. Start with hearing the unique colors of each of the lower chord tones (1-3-5-7) in each of these chords

  •     Major 7th

  •     Minor 7th

  •     Dominant 7th

  •     Half Diminished 7th

Then work on the upper chord tones of each of the above chords (9-11-#11,13.)

Then work on these various alterations for each category:

  •     Major 7th alterations – #5

  •     Minor 7th  alterations – #7

  •     Dominant 7th alterations – #5, b9, #9

Intervallic Relationships in Voicings

When playing with a group I rarely voice the root in any chord. Constantly using the root in the bass range will drive bass players crazy. Even on endings, so much more can be achieved by extending the sonority. Below are some sample voicings that I use from time to time. I am constantly thinking texture and color. I try to achieve these by executing harmony and rhythm. Like I mentioned earlier, transcriptions are wonderful models, but don’t allow them to be a substitute for ear training and imagination. Develop a process for learning voicings. The Appendix is completely Random. Analyze each chord as if you were going to rename the chord symbol, being very careful to identify all the Color Tones and Qualifiers. I gave you the root and some of the qualifiers. You figure the rest out. Like I said earlier in the article, look for the intervallic relationships and begin to assimilate them into your thinking. Also, transpose these voicings into different keys that will work for you. “Just know what you’re gonna call it and where you’re gonna use it.”

I hope this article has been helpful. I don’t hold all the answers. After 30 years of playing (and singing) I learn something new every time I sit down at the piano. May I challenge you to do the same?

Appendix Jazz Piano Voicings

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