You simply can’t play modern jazz without knowing these voicings in all the keys. It’s a bit like getting the hang of the clutch when you’re learning to drive. While they’re not the only voicings used, they are the backbone of jazz piano and you need them so instinctively programmed into your hands that you can play round them while chatting up a punter or wondering what colour to repaint the kitchen. Or whether you’re going to get paid.
But the shapes and choices of notes can be a bit confusing when you’re first learning them. They’re often taught in the spirit of just “this is what you play, now get on and learn it”. Few teachers go into “this is why”. Where did these voicings come from and why did the people who introduced them choose these particular notes?
We’ll get on to where they came from in just a minute, but the answer to the second question is simple: because they are not just the best choices of notes, but arguably they are the only choices…
These voicings are usually credited to Bill Evans, Wyn Kelly and Red Garland. Not strictly accurate. While they evoke an Evansish sound and he certainly did use them, he used a lot more besides. And while these voicings came to prominence in the period these three players were at the height of popularity, they had already been used widely by earlier players such as Bud Powell, Tatum and Ellington.
Some would say they are a borrowing from the Impressionists in classical music. Maybe that was indeed an influence, and you do find these structures in works by Ravel, Debussy and their contemporaries. Now even the hippest, “streetest” jazz legend was always interested in music as a whole and most of the greats loved classical music and studied theory every chance they got. But even if they’d been locked in a hermetically sealed “jazz room”, it’s almost inevitable that they’d have come up with these voicings anyway.
WHY ROOTLESS VOICINGS?
Simple again. Because you can. There’s a bass player who is taking care of the root notes and this frees you up from having to play roots on the piano.
Actually, even when there isn’t a bass player, and even when you aren’t playing the root notes on the piano, these voicings are often used to support a melody or solo in the right hand.
So here are the ground rules:
- The strongest chord tones are R37 on m7 and 7 chords and R36 on tonic chords.
- You don’t need to play the root (the bass has it) and this means you have the luxury of adding more interesting chord tones. 5ths will always sound okay, but aren’t essential (particularly since the bassist will often be referencing the 5th as well as the root).
- The compass of the human hand makes a four-note voicing the optimum natural choice.
- Ideally, we don’t want to double chord tones – it’s more efficient and harmonically cleaner if we don’t.
- We want to aim for the smoothest voice-leading we can find over the commonest cadences – and by far the commonest cadence in jazz is the II-V-I progression.
So the bassist is taking care of the root. Let’s build things up, step by step, over a plain unaltered Dm7 G7 C progression. Here are the strong chord tones (minus roots):
We’ve got another two fingers’ worth, though. First up, what can we put between these two essential notes? Let’s try out the possibilities:
- Dm7: the 4th G doesn’t add much, nor does the 6th (or 13th) B, so let’s put the 5th A in there. No problems.
- G7: we don’t need the root G, so that leaves us the 9th A, which sounds good. In it goes.
- C: we avoid the natural 4th F on a tonic major chord because it’s dissonant. This only leaves us with the 5th G, which is fine, so let’s put that in:
Notice how the voices move smoothly from one chord to the next – so all well and good so far.
We’ve still got a spare voice. It’s easy enough to take what we’ve got here with the LH fingers, in which case we’ve got a thumb flapping about doing nothing. So what can we stick on top to give the thumb something useful to do?
- Dm7: the root D is taken care of, and we’re already playing the 3rd F, so that just leaves us the 9th E. Which sounds great. Isn’t that lucky?
- G7: we avoid the natural 4th C on a dominant chord because it’s dissonant. We could play the 5th D, but there’s a more interesting sounding option – the 13th (or 6th) E.
- C: we could play the 7th B, but the 6th is already making the chord sound at rest, so let’s see what else is possible. We don’t want to double the root C or even the 3rd E, but what about the 9th D? Sounds good:
And there we have the classic rootless voicings. There’s no great mystery to it – these are pretty much the only choices we could have made for the best result. Now what we’re playing here could be more accurately written Dm9 G13 C69, but this sound is so much a part of the jazz idiom that pianists will play these voicings even when the written chords are the basics. Believe me, when people write G7 on a jazz chart they expect you to play the 9th and 13th.
Another permutation is possible, if you want a simpler sound on the G7 and the 7th on the major chord:
But the set we’ve chosen gives the maximum possible colour to the harmony, given the constraints of the human hand and the need for smooth voice-leading.
In one sense, what we’ve arrived at is just a hipper version of the really basic voicings built on the roots, we’ve just shifted these shapes up a 3rd:
There’s one more consideration. Because these voicings are both rich and compact, there’s a sort of “sweet spot” on the keyboard where they sound best – too low and they’re muddy, too high and they’re thin. Generally speaking, they’ll sound best if you keep your LH little finger roughly within the range of the octave below middle C.
Rather limits your options when you’re playing them in all keys doesn’t it? But as with all other chord voicings, we can invert them. There are four notes, therefore four inversions. All can be used, but work through them and you’ll notice that two of the possibilities are rather cramped. For this reason, the following is the most used inversion of the set:
or if you prefer a 7th on the major chord:
Note where we’ve written them. When deciding where to play the inversions remember “the rule of little finger”.
Of course these voicings can be altered to accommodate minor II-V-Is and incorporate extended harmonies. But get the hang of the clutch before you start getting into handbrake turns!
You might not be used to hearing and seeing 9ths, 6ths and 13ths. So the first step is to play the roots in the LH and the rootless voicings in the RH. This is so you get to associate aurally, physically and visually these harmonic shapes with the roots. Then give the LH some practice at them.
Go through all inversions and variations in all keys (be careful with the key signatures!) until they become second nature. Believe me, every jazz pianist has done this vital spadework at some point in the past. Once these shapes are in your ears and your hands, you’ll own them forever.