Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
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Want to improvise Cocktail Jazz Piano? In today’s jazz piano lesson, you’re going to learn 3 exercises to master Cocktail Jazz Piano improv so that you can play more interesting improvisations.

Unfortunately for most students, they learn a few chords and a scale and are told “just make stuff up with this”.  Talk about a recipe for failure!

The problem is that you need to know how to practice improvisation.

So buckle up, because whether you are a piano hobbyist or a piano pro, you’re going to learn a ton.

Step 1: The Turnaround Progression

Step number one for improvising Cocktail Piano (also called Jazz Ballad style) is to use a progression that repeats itself – that way you don’t need to memorize a bazillian chords.

One of the best chord progressions to accomplish this is the Turnaround Progression, also known as Rhythm Changes.

It is only 4 chords, they are easy to play, and they are used on hundreds of jazz standards (I Got Rhythm, Cheek to Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, Blue Moon, and the list goes on and on).

Here is a very basic turnaround progression to practice before moving on:

Turnaround progression (rhythm changes) CMaj7 Am7 Dm7 G7

Now, you can do a deep dive of the Turnaround Progression here, but today I want to show you a very simple way to play it in a Cocktail Jazz Piano, or Jazz Ballad style.

Beginner Turnaround Progression

First, we will explore a beginner approach for playing the Turnaround Progression using a device called chord shells.  Check it out:

Turnaround progression (rhythm changes) shell chords, cocktail jazz piano

A chord shell is the root, 3rd, and 7th of a chord.

In the above sheet music, you are using a root to chord approach, which I call “Stride Jazz Ballad”.  I love this approach because it works on virtually any Jazz Ballad or Cocktail Piano tune (try it on another jazz standard or lead sheet).

Intermediate Turnaround Progression

If you have some experience playing jazz piano, then I highly recommend that you play the turnaround progression using rootless voicing.

What is a “rootless voicing”? It is a chord that jazz musicians use to make ordinary 7th chords (major 7, minor 7, and dominant 7 chords) more interesting.

Specifically, rootless chord voicings don’t contain a root, and instead contain a 9th extension.  On dominant 7 chords, the 5th is also omitted and replaced with a 13.  Here is how you would play rootless voicings on the turnaround progression:

Turnaround progression (rhythm changes) rootless voicings, cocktail jazz piano

If you want to do a deep dive on rootless voicings, you can learn learn them here.

Step 2: The Major Blues Scale (Gospel Scale)

This is arguably the most important scale to learn as an improvising pianist because it works over virtually all genres and over virtually all songs.

The Major Blues Scale is a 6 note scale.  If you were to refer to it as a function of the major scale, it would be as follows:

1 2 b3 3 5 6

Simple, right?

Now, if you were to play it in the key of C, here is what it would look like with fingering:

C major blues scale (gospel scale) with fingering

I highly recommend that you practice this scale up and down the piano, because this is the scale that you will use to improvise Cocktail Jazz Piano.

For a great reference on how to use the Gospel Scale in swing improv, checkout this video.

Step 3: 3 Exercises to Master Cocktail Piano

Well, you made it to the final and most important step.  Now that you have the chords and scale, it’s time to practice improv.

But wait Jonny… isn’t that an oxymoron?  How do you “practice improvisation”? Isn’t improv just whatever you make up?

Well, yes and no.

A great improviser indeed will make up beautiful, melodic lines in the moment.

But a great improviser will also practice mastering the primary improvisation devices.

Hold on, hold on… what’s an “improvisation device”? I thought you just play what you hear in your head?

Well, yes it’s good to try to play what you hear in your head.  But more importantly, it’s better to understand the building blocks of Cocktail Jazz Improv, which I call an Improvisation Device.

You see, if you analyze most pro-level Cocktail Piano improvisors, you’ll discover that 95% of their right hand improvisation consists of these three elements:

8th notes, triplets, and slides

That’s it.

But what about flashy runs, arpeggios, and big jazz chords?

That’s all important,  but those are “filler”. The meat and potatoes of improv is almost always 8th notes, triplets, and slides.

Once you have these elements down, you’ll be able to start creating beautiful Cocktail Jazz Piano improvisations.

So without further ado, let’s get into the three essential Cocktail Piano exercises.

Exercise 1: 8th Notes

This is by far the most important exercises because you will likely use 8th notes in 50% or more of your lines.

This is where jazz music really “sings”, whether you are playing a jazz ballad, jazz swing, bebop, or Latin Bossa Nova piano.

Here, is the exercise that I recommend playing over the Rhythm Changes (Turnaround) Progression:

C major blues scale (gospel scale) exercise in 8th notes, cocktail jazz piano

As you can see, we play the Major Blues Scale (gospel scale) up and down the keyboard with 8th notes.  The reason we do this is because a good improviser should comfortably be able to play in any direction at will, AND they should comfortably be able to play all octaves of the keyboard.

Once you get comfortable with the scale, add the left hand accompaniment. Remember, you can choose the beginner or the intermediate accompaniment.

Once you feel good with the scale, try to improv some lines with the scale.  Remember, a line has a start and and end point, so leave little gaps between your “musical phrases”.

For a deep dive of how to create beautiful lines in the Jazz Ballad style, checkout the Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge.

Exercise 2: Triplets

Next, we’re going to master triplets.  This is roughly 30% of your improvisation, and you will use triplets to create energy and move you up or down the piano faster.

Here is my recommended triplet exercise using the Gospel Scale, or Major Blues Scale:

C major blues scale (gospel scale) triplet exercise, cocktail jazz piano

Once you start feeling comfortable with triplets, go ahead and add one of the Turnaround Progression accompaniments. It’s getting harder, right? That’s OK – you are growing and developing a new musical “language”.

Once you can play triplets comfortably at 70 BPM with left hand, go ahead and try improvising.  Remember, the key is play lines.  A line is like a sentence – make sure you put a little musical “period” or breath between the lines so that you don’t create musical “run-on sentences”.

I also highly encourage you to mix triplets and 8th notes.  Explore the full range of the keyboard. Also, I recommend playing with the backing track (available for download on this page for PWJ Members).

Exercise 3: Slides

Our final exercise uses slides, and this is the 15% of your playing.  The idea behind a slide is that you pick certain key notes (no pun intended) to slide.  Which notes sound best?

With the Major Blues Scale, it is best to slide the 3rd and the 6th.  In other words, slide the E from D#, and slide the A from G#.  Here is my slide exercises with fingering:

C major blues scale (gospel scale) with slides, cocktail jazz piano

You can slide with 2 fingers, but I recommend sliding each note with one finger so you get more of an attack on the first note.

Play the slide up and down by itself and work toward 70 BPM.  Once there, add the left hand accompaniment.  Now you’re in business!

Put Everything Together

The final step is to put everything together – 8th notes, triplets, and slides.  Really focus on the 50/30/15 split. You want primarily 8ths, then triplets, then slides.

Record yourself improvising, and then listen to it after the fact.  Did you play triplets very much? Did you only slide the E, but not the A? Be mindful of which techniques you leave out, and then work to improve them.

I also recommend that you practice these exercises in other keys.  One of the easiest ways to do this is with our smart lesson sheet, where you can change the entire lesson sheet music with the click of one button. You can access the smart lesson sheet here.

Well, that’s it for today my friends.  For more in-depth courses on improvisation, I’ve put together my top choices below.

Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge
10-Lesson Blues Challenge
Bossa Nova Soloing Challenge
Soloing Over A Turnaround
Funky Blues Soloing
Latin Jazz Soloing

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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