Leaning how to play jazz piano can be a great source of fun, and open up many different musical ideas for players of all styles. At the heart of jazz, whether Swing, Blues, Latin, Bebop, or even Fusion, is improvisation.
Generally, we think of improvisation as creating solo melodies, but it is much more than that. Every aspect of jazz in fact requires improvisation. The jazz pianist improvises solo lines, bass lines, and rhythmic accompaniments. They also can put all three of these elements together creating full on arrangements on the spot from a lead sheet.
The lead sheet is the improvisor’s map. It consists of a melody with text underlay, and a series of chord symbols outlining a song’s harmonic progression. It is from this chart that improvisors builds their music.
A standard approach in learning how to play jazz piano is the study of chords and scales. The pitches contained within these musical units become the pitches that the improvisor uses in creating their solos. For example consider the chord symbol C7 in a lead sheet. This symbol tells the player that the harmony is a C dominant seventh chord. It also tells the player that they can use a C mixolydian scale as a source of pitches for creating melodic lines for the duration of the chord.
There are just three basic types of chords and scales that will get you through many pieces in the jazz repertoire. They are built around the II7 – V7 – IΔ7 chord progression. We will look at this progression in C major to give you some ideas on how to practice your scales.
The II7 chord is a minor seventh chord. Its basic accompanying scale is the dorian mode. In C major, the II7 chord is Dm7. Lets have a peek at the chord and the scale. I have included the ninth in the chord for reasons that will hopefully become obvious:
Dm7: D F A C (E)
D Dorian: D E F G A B C
Now compare Dm7 with D Dorian. Notice that except for the G, they contain exactly the same pitches. This is why jazz musicians will say a ‘Dm7 scale,’ which just sounds odd to a classical musician. But to the improvisor, they are right: these two musical concepts really are the same. It is because the D Dorian scale contains the pitches of the Dm7 harmony that we can use it to improvise melodic lines.
When you practice your scale, play it in swung eighth notes from the root of the chord to the ninth, and back down again:
D E F G A B C D E D C B A G F E D
Notice that practicing up to the ninth puts the chord tones of Dm7 on the beat, underlined above. This is the strongest metric position in music, so that in essence, the scale is simply arpeggiating through the chord. This trains the player’s ear to want to hear chord tones in strong metric positions, which in turn lends the most support to the underlying harmony.
Now that we have a basic methodology for practicing scales in place lets finish off our chords and scales for the C major II7-V7- IΔ7 progression.
V7 in C major is a G7 chord. Its basic accompanying scale is G mixolydian. We have included the ninth in the chord as before:
G7: G B D F A
G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F
An finally IΔ7, here a CΔ7 which suggests C ionian scale:
CΔ7: C E G B D
C Ionian: C D E F G A B C
You may notice that the C ionian scale is the same as a C major scale. In fact, all three scales that we have studied here can be related to C major. it is their focus on specific pitches that creates the sense of harmony.
The theory presented so far probably quite a bit to digest if you are new to improvisation. Nevertheless these concepts are important in learning how to play jazz piano, and are worth the time and effort needed to understand them. I hope that this brief article has given you at least a starting place in your jazz studies.