Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Accompanying
  • Songs
Music Style
  • Holiday
  • Jazz Ballads
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Have you ever wondered how your role as a jazz pianist changes when you are an accompanist versus a soloist? In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn a beautiful jazz piano accompaniment for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” that is well-suited for a soloist on stage or a sing-along by the fireside. You’ll learn:

  • Jazzy Chord Extensions
  • Chord Alterations
  • Rootless Voicings
  • Tritone Substitutions
  • Upper Structure Triads and more

Today’s piano accompaniment is suited for intermediate level pianists. However, aspiring jazz pianists of all levels will benefit as Jonny explains his piano accompaniment considerations note-by-note and chord-by-chord for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Let’s jump in…

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Piano Accompaniment Considerations

The “A Section” of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is based on a common chord progression called the Turnaround Progression.  This progression cycles through the 1-6-2-5 chords like this:

The Turnaround Progression 1-6-2-5 Roman Numerals as used in Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Piano Accompaniment

Today’s lesson is in the key of G major which is perfect for alto and baritone voices. However, if you need to accompany a different vocal range, you can easily transpose the entire piano accompaniment for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

A simple realization of the turnaround progression in G major can be written like this:

Example 1Turnaround Progression in G with root position chords G Em Am D 1-6-2-5

While the realization above is theoretically correct, musically speaking, it’s not very interesting. In fact, there are two problems with it. First, when an accompaniment uses only root position chords like the example above, it causes the transition from chord to chord to be too disjunct. Secondly, this example is not stylized for any particular genre. By contrast, listen to the same chord progression below from today’s piano accompaniment for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

Example 2Turnaround Progression in G Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Jazz Piano Accompaniment

That’s a pretty significant difference, wouldn’t you say? It all has to do with how you voice the chords. This is a great excerpt for studying and drilling jazz ballad stylization because it contains chords from each of the three main categories that make up the majority of the chords you will encounter: major, minor, and dominant. Let’s consider them one at a time:

Major Chords for Jazz Piano Accompaniment

Whenever you encounter a major chord on a lead sheet and you are looking to create a jazzy sound, you will want to color the voicing by adding chord extensions. Chord extensions are chord tones above the 7th that add additional color, including the 9th, 11th and 13th. In Example 2 above, the G Major triad from Example 1 has been transformed to a G Major 9, which includes the major 7th (F♯) and the 9th (A).

Jazzy Major Chords

For a deep dive on chord extensions, check out our full-length course on Piano Chord Extensions.

Minor Chords for Jazz Piano Accompaniment

When you encounter a minor chord as an accompanist and you want to get a full and warm sound, you can add the minor 7th and the 11th to get a modern jazz sound. For example, instead of playing an Em triad, you can play and E minor 11 which includes the 7th (D) and the 11th (A). If you are less accustomed to finding the 11th, in may be easier to think of it as the 4th—this will give you the same note.

Jazzy E Minor 11 Chord Voicing Em11

Can you follow the same process to transform and Am triad into an Am11? First, add the 7th (G), and then add the 11th (D).

Jazzy A Minor 11 Chord Voicing Am11

Dominant Chords for Jazz Piano Accompaniment

The category of dominant chords in jazz piano presents a large opportunity for coloration and expression. That is because there are many ways they can be voiced. In Example 2 above, the 5 chord first appears as a D13(sus4), which creates a suspension. A suspension delays the arrival of the 3rd of the chord (F♯) by preceding it with the 4th (G). This chord also features a chord extension, the 13th (B). The final chord in Example 2, D7(♭9), uses yet another technique—chord alteration. A simple way to think of a chord alteration is as a chord extension bearing an accidental. There are four chord alterations available: ♭9, ♯9, ♯11, ♭13. The combination of the suspension with the chord alteration (♭9) creates a beautiful dominant arrival with some linear movement.

Jazzy D13(sus4) Dominant Voicing

When the turnaround progression repeats in measures 3-4, the D13(sus4) has been replaced with a D9(sus4) instead. This adds interest to this arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by varying the melodic line of the piano accompaniment.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas Piano Accompaniment mm 3-4

Before jumping ahead, try playing these two variations of the turnaround progression in measures 1–4 along with the backing track that is included with this lesson. You can download the entire accompaniment sheet music and backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

Tritone Substitution and Upper Structure Triads

As we come to the 1st ending, we get a C9(♯11) chord that employs two advanced jazz arranging techniques.

1st Ending Tritone Sub & Upper Structure Triad

First, this C9(♯11) chord represents a technique called tritone substitution. If you look at measure 7, you’ll see the resolution chord for C9(♯11) is a B13. All extensions and alterations aside, this is essentially a C7 chord that is actually substituting for a F♯7 chord—the dominant of B13. Why does this work? There is a musical similarity between dominant chords that are a tritone apart, such as C7 and F♯7. They share the same guide tones (the 3rd and 7th). For example, the 3rd of F♯7 is A♯ and the 7th is E. Similarly, the 3rd of C7 is E and the 7th is B♭.

Tritone Substitution IllustrationTritone Substitution Illustration

Because the guide tones are the same notes, these chords are often used interchangeably in jazz harmonization. The tritone substitution creates a complex dominant sound that resolves to the target chord with a bass line that descends by ½ step.

The second advanced jazz arranging technique used in the 1st ending involves the specific voicing of C9(♯11). Notice that the right hand is playing a D Major triad while the left hand is playing a C7 chord shell. This dominant chord voicing is utilizing an upper structure triad that includes the 9th, the ♯11 and the 13th (D-F♯-A). Upper structure triads allow jazz pianists to conveniently add specific combinations of chord extensions and alterations to enhance their dominant chords. To learn additional upper structure triads, check out our full-length course on this topic—Coloring Dominant Chords With Upper Structures.

2-5 Movement and Rootless Voicings

Toward the end of “B Section,” the tune features minor-to-dominant chord movement arranged in a string of 2-5 progressions beginning in measure 17. In other words, each pair of minor-to-dominant chords is like an incomplete 2-5-1 progression. Specifically, measure 17 features a 2-5 in A Major, with Bm9 serving as the 2 chord and E13 as the 5 chord. Measure 18 is a 2-5 progression in D Major, and measure 19 is a 2-5 chord progression in G Major. This chord sequence is well-suited to use rootless voicings in the right hand. One advantage of rootless voicings is their efficiency in voice leading when moving from a 2 chord to a 5 chord. Notice below how only one right hand note moves by ½ step in each 2-5 chord sequence.

2-5 root movement and rootless voicings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Piano Accompaniment B Section

You can master all of your rootless voicings in using our Rootless Voicings–Chord Types 2-5-1 Application.

Congratulations! You’ve taken a big step toward mastering some fairly complex jazz piano concepts in today’s lesson. If you enjoyed the techniques covered in today’s Quick Tip, then you will want to check out our complete courses on Hark the Herald Angels Sing–Jazz Ballad (Level 2, Level 3) where you’ll learn how to harmonize a melody, add fills and even take a solo.

Thanks for learning with us today. We’ll see you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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