3 Steps to Play Jazz Swing Piano
Have you ever wondered how jazz pianists take a lead sheet and transform it into a swinging jazz piano arrangement? Today we’ll use the tune “Ode to Joy” to create a jazz swing piano feel in just 3 steps! Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Constructing 7th chords
- Jazz piano chord shells
- Melodic harmonization adding one note
- Getting that swing feel
Whether you consider yourself a beginner, intermediate or advanced pianist, this lesson is guaranteed to help you get some toes tapping!
Let’s take a look.
Understanding a Lead Sheet
When playing jazz, a lead sheet is a guide to help you navigate, much like a map. A map doesn’t contain every detail of the terrain, but it is a reliable guide for understanding your surroundings so that you can make decisions that will keep you on track. You read the map based on your prior knowledge and your specific needs. You then watch for fixed markers. A lead sheet works in the same way.
A lead sheet assumes some basic knowledge on the part of the reader—especially a knowledge of chord symbols. When playing in a jazz style, it is especially important that you know how to build 7th chords. In our lesson today, we will primarily be using three types of 7th chords—Major 7th, Dominant 7th, and minor 7th. The figure below illustrates how these chords are constructed and various ways they can be indicated in a lead sheet.
To extend the map analogy a little further, knowing these fixed chords symbols allows us to select a route through the lead sheet. As you might have guessed, there are usually several possibilities, but some routes are more effective than others.
If you want to explore 7th chords further, we have in-depth courses for each of the chords discussed so far:
- Major 7th Chord Theory and Application
- Dominant 7th Chord Theory and Application
- Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application
Step 1: Add Chord Shells
One great what to navigate a through a lead sheet is to use chord shells. A chord shell is a two-note chord voicing played with the left hand. A chord shell can be built with the root and 3rd, or root and 7th. That means for each chord symbol, you will essentially have two options on how to play the chord shell:
Jazz pianists are careful to select good voice leading by minimizing leaps when moving from one chord to the next. (Often, a leap in the lowest note cannot be avoided.) Based on the principle of voicing leading, the best option to connect C Major 7 to G Minor 7 is as shown below:
Let’s complete step 1 for the first phrase of “Ode to Joy” by playing chord shells with your left hand for each chord symbol indicated above the melody.
Did you come up with something like I have shown below?
Note that sometimes you may need to construct a chord shell in which the 6th is substituted for the 7th, as shown in the Fm6 chord above.
If you want more practice constructing chord shells, I cover more on this topic in Chord Shell & Guide Tones Exercises course.
And if you don’t know your 7th chords, you can learn them in every key with exercises in our Piano Foundations Learning Track.
Step 2: Add 3/7 Harmony
You’re doing great! The next step is to add an additional note in the right hand below the melody. This helps to fill out the sound. To do this, I am going to add either the 3rd or the 7th. I am making my decision on which note to add to the right hand based on the chord tones already present in the melody and chord shell. Let’s take the first chord of the song as an example. The first chord is C Major 7 and I already have the 3rd of the chord (the note E) in the melody and the chord shell. Naturally, I will choose to add the 7th in the right hand below the melody.
Now, follow this principle for the entire first phrase. I have written out the harmonization below. (Note: on the A7 chord I chose to harmonize the D with the 9th instead of the 3rd or 7th. This is an exception created by the D in the melody which is not part of a “stock” A7 chord.)
If you were able to add 3/7 harmony using this principle, then you are ready to start grooving by going to Step 3! If you need additional help constructing seventh chords, then you will want to explore my course on Diatonic 7th Chord Exercises.
Step 3: 4-On-The-Floor
You’re on a roll! Can you believe that you don’t have to add any more notes to make this arrangement sound amazing? All you have to do now is adjust the feel to make it swing. I do this using a technique called “4 on the floor.” 4-On-The-Floor is an accompaniment pattern that uses all quarter notes in the left hand. (However, you’ll want to be sure not to play the left hand too heavy.)
Lastly, you’ll notice above in Step 3 that part of the way to create the swing feel involves adding rhythmic variation to melody which is characteristic of the swing genre. I like to imagine my right hand as the horn section of a big band whereas my left hand is more like the rhythm section.
Did you know you can download the sheet music to this lesson at the bottom of this page when you are logged-in with your membership? A great way to develop your proficiency is to transpose simple songs like “Ode To Joy” into various keys. This Quick Tip has a companion Smart Sheet Music for Piano With Jonny members that is transposable into any key with a single click.
Want to learn other styles? We also have several courses that explore “Ode To Joy” in different styles. Learning a song in different styles is a great what to learn what makes each style unique. Consider the following courses: Ode To Joy in 3 Jazz Styles 1 (Level 2), Ode To Joy in 3 Jazz Styles 2 (Level 3), and Ode To Joy (Level 3)—stride piano style,
Finally, If you’d like to see a performance example of the jazz swing piano style, check out my video of the standard tune “Let’s Fall in Love.”
As always, thanks for learning with me, and I’ll see you in the next piano lesson!
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