Playing jazz piano chords is not that complicated, it just takes a little focused practice, and some understanding of how they work in larger chord progressions. When we think of jazz chords, we usually think of them as having a particular function in a larger context. This function is often either a II, V, or I chord within a major or minor key center. For example, in the key of C major, the root of the I chord is C, while the root of the II chord is D and the root of the V chord is G.
We usually play jazz chords on the piano with upper extensions added to the basic triad. These extensions will almost always include sevenths, and perhaps added ninths. For our purposes here we will limit the discussion to sevenths. With the above in mind, we can note that the three principle chord functions also have particular sound qualities associated with them. For major keys: I is a major seventh chord, II is a minor seventh, and V a dominant seventh chord. The pitches for these chords in C major are as follows:
C E G B
D F A C
G B D F
How we actually play these jazz piano chords will depend largely on the piece, performance situation, and personal choice. If you are just first learning these chords, you probably want to study each one separately with full four note voicing. Try them first as block chords hands separately and hands together through all of their inversions.
After you are confident with these chords, play them as a II-V-I progression in a four measure phrase: one measure each for the II and V chord, and two measures for the I chord. Play them with steady quarter-notes in four-four time to get started. Pay some attention to your voice-leading, that is, try to move the hand as little as possible taking advantage of any common tones between chords. The following table demonstrates a simple voice-leading plan for our C major progression starting with a root position II chord. Read the chords from lowest note to highest.
Playing chords with smooth voice-leading in mind not only makes the chord changes sound good, once you understand the idea, they are actually easier to play than a series of root position chords. This is because your hand and fingers are moving as efficiently as possible.
Try to vary the voicing of this C major II-V-I progression by starting on different inversions of the II chord. Remember to work the hands separately at first, then put them together.
Depending on the performance situation, you do not have to always play full four-note voicings in each hand. The essential pitches in jazz piano chords are the root, third, and seventh. You can potentially omit the fifth of the chord which will lighten up the texture a bit, and free a finger for small lead lines. You can even divide the work between the two hands. For example, play the root of the chord in the left hand with the third and seventh in the right hand. As your skill develops you can move this style of playing into creating walking bass-lines in the left hand, while playing short chordal shots in the right hand, something that always sounds great.
When you are playing jazz piano chords, you really do not have to play complex rhythms. The straight four-four rhythm suggested earlier works well in many situations. For variety you may only need to play on beats one and three or two and four. Another common variation is to play the downbeat of the measure, and syncopate the third beat by playing it an eighth note early. You can also create a simple but effect cross rhythm between the hands by playing straight quarter-notes in the left hand, and the syncopated rhythm described above in the right hand.
The two techniques described here, voice-leading, and simple rhythms should give you a starting place for playing jazz piano chords. Jazz is an improvised form of performance, so take the above ideas and experiment a bit. Some of your ideas will work well, while some may not and that is fine as long as you are learning and enjoying your practice.
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