Sometimes watching a jazz pianist’s fingers flutter from key to key reminds
a listener of a bee buzzing gracefully from one pretty flower to the next, collecting as much nectar as that
flower can offer and then moving on.
Playing jazz piano, like buzzing
between flowers, is really based on structures that are simpler than most pianists may realize.
Just as bees need to recognize the types of flowers that will give them what they need and which ones won’t,
jazz players need to quickly recognize which chords and changes will provide the types of sounds they’re looking
for at any given moment.
The first thing an aspiring jazz player need to grow comfortable with before letting his fingers rip riffs up
and down the keyboard are the inversions to common seventh chords. He should quickly be able to recognize that he
can play Dm7 with any combination of notes D, F, A, and C, and same for any other seventh chord.
Quickly being able to recognize inversions means being able to land the left hand on the accurate notes and
being able to improvise melodic riffs with the right hand along those chords. If they grow comfortable with all
major and minor seventh chord inversions, he should also add ninth chords; for example, for a Dm9 chord this would
require D, F, A, C, and E.
Knowing inversions is important because, as is the case with this Dm9 chord, it
can be difficult to actually play all five of those notes and the jazz pianist need to quickly decide which of
those five to play and still recognize it as a Dm9 chord.
Next, after growing comfortable with the variety of possible inversions, it’s time to begin practicing jazz riff
through chord changes. Let the left hand land on a seventh chord, and then let the right hand begin picking out
notes that correspond to that chord. For example, if the left hand is playing F, A, C, and E (an inversion an a Dm9
chord that sort of looks like an F7 chord), he automatically knows he the right hand can play notes D, F, A, C, and
Try playing a few seventh or ninth chords with the left hand, and let the right hand experiment with playing
jazzy riffs with the same basic chord notes. You can even change the chord slightly by adding ninths, elevenths,
and thirteenths, as well as leading up to tones with a half step “hop” into them.
Of course, playing one chord at a time is boring. The final step toward effectively playing jazz riffs through
chord changes is knowing which chords to change to. Learning chord progressions, like the foundational I – IV – V –
I progression or the ii – V – I progression (with the sevenths included, of course) will help jazz pianists know
exactly what their next chord should be.
If you’re playing a Dm7 and have already played a riff with the right hand, let your left hand switch to a G7
chord and let your right hand begin the dancing on that new chord. Set yourself up for jazzy success by knowing the
inversions, the sevenths, and the progressions so that your mind doesn’t have to concentrate so hard on figuring
out which notes to play next and your fingers can flutter from key to key.
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