3 Steps to Play Lounge Jazz Piano
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Jazz piano has a way of creating the perfect mood whenever people gather, whether it’s at a cocktail lounge or a bar, a coffee shop or a cafe—or just about anywhere! Often simply called lounge jazz piano, this easy-listening genre of jazz lifts spirits and transports minds to preferable places. You’ll also find lounge jazz piano at restaurants, weddings, casinos, and on cruise ships. There’s just something about the sound of sultry jazz piano chords and meandering melodies that feels right. And if you’re a piano player yourself, you needn’t just listen to lounge jazz—you can play it too! In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll discover 3 steps to play lounge jazz piano. We also discuss each of the following topics:
- Introduction to Lounge Jazz Piano
- Step 1: The Lounge Piano Progression
- Step 2: Beginner Improv Techniques
- Step 3: Intermediate Improv Techniques
Introduction to Lounge Jazz Piano
Lounge jazz music is much easier to represent than it is to define. Author and musicologist James Spencer writes, “the genre has changed considerably to include nearly hundreds of sub-genres.”¹ Indeed, Spencer is right. In fact, a casual glance at streaming playlists for “lounge jazz” yields diverse selections that may otherwise be classified as swing, bebop, cool jazz, Brazilian jazz and smooth jazz. It is with this broad understanding of lounge music that Spencer is able to group together such diverse pianists as Liberace, Carmen Cavallaro, Roger Williams, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing and Bill Evans. For the of purpose today’s lesson, we’ll present lounge jazz as a sophisticated sounding blend of bebop and blues that is suitable for casual listening.
Today’s lesson is designed to get you playing in the lounge jazz style right away. In fact, you can get started today with just 4 chords. Our lesson sheet is in the key of C minor and can be downloaded from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key with a single click using our Smart Sheet Music. To begin, try playing the following four chords with your left hand:
If you are a beginner, then these chords may seem peculiar to you. You’re probably wondering, “Where are the roots?” These are rootless voicings, a jazz piano technique popularized by Bill Evans, Red Garland and Wynton Kelly in the mid to late 1950s. These pianists added rich chord colors to their voicings through the use of chord extensions (9th, 11th, 13th). When using rootless voicings, the root is generally played by the bassist. However, in solo piano settings, the pianist will often play the root immediately preceding the voicing. When accompanying in the lounge jazz style, you will often play these rootless voicings in your right hand while playing the roots in your left hand.
Step 1: The Lounge Piano Progression
The four chords in the previous section form a common chord progression that perfectly characterizes the lounge jazz piano sound. This progression, also called the minor turnaround progression, follows the chord sequence of 1-6-2-5 in a minor key. If you are familiar with jazz theory, the specific chord functions are Im6/9→VIø7→II7(♯9♭13)→V7(♯9♭13).
The first step to playing lounge jazz piano is to play this progression along with the backing tracks that are included with this lesson. Therefore, be sure to log in with your membership. Then, all 4 backing tracks are downloadable from the Lesson Resources section at bottom of this page.
Here is the Lounge Piano Progression in C minor.
“Beautiful Love” (1965)
“You Don’t Know What Love Is” (1957)
“Lullaby of Birdland” (1983)
Step 2: Lounge Jazz Piano Beginner Improv
The second step to playing lounge jazz piano is to apply beginner improv techniques using the minor blues scale. This scale sounds fantastic over the the minor turnaround progression. Therefore, it’s important to know how to build a minor blues scale. Simply apply the following formula to any major scale: 1–♭3–4–♯4–5–♭7. For example, here are the notes of the C minor blues scale.
As a classic example, check out how Wynton Kelly uses the C minor blues scale to improvise sultry piano lines on the intro to “Softly, As A Morning Sunrise.”
Beginner Technique #1: Slides
Slides are simple ornaments that you can use to add bluesy inflections to your improv lines. There are two types of slides—up slides and down slides. Up slides ascend to a target note from a ½ step below. On the other hand, down slides descend to a target note from a ½ step above. Many slides can be played with the same finger by literally sliding off a black key to a white key. For instance, Jonny plays the first two examples below (F♯➚G and G♭➘F) with the same finger in a single motion. On the other hand, slides that move from a white key to a black key (F➚G♭) must be played with two fingers. The final example below is a double slide (F➚G♭➚G) . Try playing this slide with the index finger on F and the middle finger for both F♯ and G.
Slide Exercises for Beginners
If you are a beginner piano student, or if you come from a background in classical piano, slides may feel a bit unnatural at first. However, with a little practice, you’ll be able to adopt this technique a natural means of expression. The following slide exercises will help you develop familiarity with this technique. The exercises are divided into two categories—(1) Lower Position Slides and (2) Upper Position Slides.
Lower Position Slides
Lower Position Slides on the C minor blues scale are played within the range of C to G♭. However, these slides can be played in any register. The label “lower” simply designates that these slides use the lower section of the blues scale (1–♭3–4–♯4). First, we’ll begin with a down slide exercise since there is only one (G♭➘F).
Good job. Next, we’ll play some up slide exercises.
The first up slide exercise focuses on the only slide in the C minor blues scale that requires a movement from a white key to a black key (F➚G♭). Therefore, this slide requires the use of two fingers. It can be played with the 2nd and 3rd fingers, or with the 3rd and 4th fingers. While fingers 3 and 4 is slightly more challenging, this fingering is advantageous because it allows you to integrate the notes E♭ and C into your lines.
Well done. Next, let’s examine the upper portion of our C minor blues scale.
Upper Position Slides
Upper Position Slides are played in the range of F♯ to C. This range includes the tones ♯4–5–♭7–1 of the minor blues scale. The first exercise below focuses on an up slide from F♯➚G. Both notes of this slide can be played with the same finger. The first example uses the 3rd finger.
Good job. This exercise can also be played with the 2nd finger, and it is beneficial to practice it both ways. In fact, notice that the alternative fingering shown below positions your hand to more easily integrate a high C into your lines.
Great job. Now you are ready for the following double slide exercise.
Nice job! Check out the next exercise which you can use to navigate between lower and upper positions.
Our final slide exercise combines an up slide in upper position with a down slide in lower position. In fact, this is great way to navigate between the two positions.
Well done! Now, try using these various slides from the C minor blues scale to improvise. Here is an example.
Sample Improv with Slides
Beginner Technique #2: Turns
Turns are a flashy sounding ornament that adds energy and personality to your improv. The key to understanding this technique is to recognize that the turn is ornamenting a target tone. You can play a turn in 4 simple steps:
- Play the target tone on a strong beat
- Play the note above the target
- Repeat the target tone
- Play the note below the target
Now that you understand the overall shape of the turn, then final step is to apply the correct timing. In the following exercise, the target note is F and steps 1 through 3 are played as a sixteenth-note triplet.
Now, try improving with turns over the minor turnaround progression. Here is an example.
Sample Improv with Turns
If you are not a PWJ member, you can sign up for the 10-Day Blues Challenge to get 5 free video lessons containing Jonny’s top blues improv techniques.
Step 3: Lounge Jazz Piano Intermediate Improv
Intermediate Technique #1: Harmonized Slides
We can take the exact same slides from Step 2 and give them an extra bluesy bite by adding some “top harmony.” The example below features a C above each slide. Note, harmonized slides are difficult to express in musical notation. For example, the “grace note” is actually played on the beat and at the same time as the harmony note.
Notice that the top harmony note is the 1st tone of the minor blues scale—the note C. In addition, you can also play harmonized slides with the ♭7—the note ♭B.
Are you ready to improvise with harmonized slides over the minor turnaround progression? Check out the following example.
Sample Improv with Harmonized Slides
Intermediate Technique #2: Harmonized Turns
Just like harmonized slides, we can also add “top harmony” to the turns presented in Step 2 to create harmonized turns. Try playing the following harmonized turn exercise.
Next, try improving with harmonized turns over the minor turnaround progression using one of the backing tracks. To begin, consider the example below.
Sample Improv with Harmonized Turns
Intermediate Technique #3: Gospel Connectors
A third intermediate improv technique that works great for lounge jazz piano playing is gospel connectors. This neighbor note gesture gets its name because of its frequent occurrence in gospel music. Here is the gospel connector technique:
Alright, it’s time to improvise with gospel connectors. You can get started with the following example.
Sample Improv with Gospel Connectors
That sounds great! Of course, all of the techniques from Step 2 and Step 3 can be mixed together to create endless possibilities that are truly unique.
Congratulations, you have completed today’s lesson on how to play lounge jazz piano in 3 steps! To explore lounge jazz even further, check out our courses on other common chord progressions found in lounge jazz repertoire. Here are a few suggestions:
- The Cycle of 5ths in 3 Jazz Styles (Level 2, Level 3)
- “Fly Me to the Moon”
- “Autumn Leaves”
- “All the Things You Are”
- The Sentimental Progression (Level 2, Level 3)
- “My Funny Valentine”
- “Blues Skies”
- “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”
- The Amazing Turnaround (Levels 2 & 3)
- “I Got Rhythm”
- “Heart and Soul”
- “The Way You Look Tonight”
- The Extended Turnaround Improv (Level 2, Level 3)
- “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”
- “Teach Me Tonight”
- “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”
In addition, if you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following courses:
- The 10-Lesson Blues Challenge (Level 2, Level 3)
- Cocktail Jazz Piano Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3)
- Summertime—Slow Blues (Level 2, Level 3)
- Bernie’s Blues—Slow Blues (Level 3)
- Slow Blues Left Hand Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
¹ Spencer, James. (2018). The Lounge Music Companion.
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