Jonny May
Quick Tip

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Lead Sheets
Music Style
  • Jazz Swing
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Improvise Jazz Piano With Upper Structure Triads

In this jazz piano lesson, you’re going to learn how to improvise over the turnaround progression using a technique called upper Structure Triads in 3 easy steps.

Before we do this, we need to make sure you have a solid grasp on the turnaround progression.

Turnaround Progression

The Turnaround Progression (also called Rhythm Changes) is one of the most common progressions in jazz, and you’ll discover it on hundreds of lead sheets.

The turnaround progression uses the 1, 6, 2, and 5 chords of a given key, and they are usually played as 7th chords.

In the key of C, the turnaround would be played CMaj7, Am7, Dm7, and G7:

Jazz piano turnaround progression (rhythm changes) in root position

Oftentimes, jazz musicians will make the 6 and 2 chords dominant (through the use of secondary dominants):

Jazz piano turnaround progression (rhythm changes) in root position with secondary dominants

The turnaround is used on hundreds of jazz standards, including I Got Rhythm, Cheek to Cheek, Let’s Fall In Love, Blue Moon, The Way You Look Tonight, and the list goes on and on.

Therefore, if you want to improvise jazz piano, you MUST know how to solo over this progression.

2 Fundamental Approaches to Jazz Piano Improv

Now, there are 2 fundamental approaches to improv and soloing:

  1. You can play steps (this comes from the scale).
  2. You can skip notes (this comes from the chord).

Most students learn cool sounding scales that are associated with chords like altered dominants, dominant diminished, and fully altered scale, but when it comes to improv by skipping around notes, they don’t know which notes to play.

If you simply play the notes from the chord (called chord tones), it can sound a little bit… vanilla.

But if you want to outline those “cool” sounding, colorful notes, which notes do you play?

In other words, how do you mix extensions (9, 11, and 13) with alterations (b9, #9, #11, and b13) in a seamless way?

Well, the best way to do this is with… drum roll…

Upper Structures! 

What is an upper structure triad?

Upper structure chords (or upper structure triads) are a powerful technique that allow you to easily and quickly improvise “cool” sounding notes over major 7, minor 7, and dominant 7 chord without having to think very much about it.

An upper structure is a major or minor triad that is usually imposed over a dominant 7 chord.  Here is a quick example:

Jazz piano upper structure triad, G13b9 (E Major over G7)

As you can see, we have imposed an E Major chord over a G7 chord shell in the left hand.  This creates a very cool sound, since the right hand is hitting a chord extension (the E, which is the 13 of the G7 chord), and an alteration (the G#, which is the b9 of the G7 chord).

Now, how do you improvise jazz piano using upper structure triads on the turnaround progression? Follow the 3 easy steps below.

3 Steps to Improvising With Upper Structure Triads

Step 1: Lay down a solid bass

Before you play upper structures, you need to have a solid bass.  If you are more of a beginner jazz pianist, I highly recommend playing simple chord shells:

Jazz piano chord shells for improv on turnaround progression (rhythm changes)

A chord shell in the left hand is usually played with the root and 3rd of the chord, or the root and 7th of the chord.

If you have experience playing jazz piano, I recommend walking a bass line:

Jazz piano walking bass line for improv on turnaround progression (rhythm changes)

You can learn more about walking bass lines in our Jazz Walking Bass Lines course.

Step 2: Learn your upper structure positions

Once you have a bass line, it’s time to create a cool sounding melody over your lead sheet chords.  Here’s a melody that I really like:

Descending melody of turnaround progression (rhythm changes) - jazz piano

Once you have this melody, it’s time to find upper structure triads that share these notes.  Here are the upper structures that I like to use (although you have multiple options):

Upper structure triads over turnaround progression (rhythm changes) for jazz piano improv.

Notice that our first chord is C Major, next is Gb Major, then F, then E.  Isn’t that amazing?!? In this case, you can play major triads mostly a half step apart, which makes it so much easier.

On measures 3 and 4, you are continuing to play triads in the right hand (G Major, Bb Minor, A Minor, and B Diminished).

Step 3: Apply patterns to your upper structure

The final step is try play these upper structures using various patterns.

The way to do this is to think of the chord in terms of three voices – the top note is Voice 1, the middle note is Voice 2, and the bottom note is Voice 3 (think of it like a choir – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass).

Now, try some patterns.  One of my favorite is 1 3 2 1.  If you played this pattern over all the chords, it goes like this:

Jazz piano upper structure pattern 1 with chord shells over the turnaround progression (rhythm changes)

If you were to play this over the walking bass line, it would go like this:

Jazz piano upper structure pattern 1 with walking bass over the turnaround progression (rhythm changes)

Now, try this new pattern: 1 2 3 1.  If you play it over all the chords, it goes like this:

Jazz piano upper structure pattern 2 with chord shells over turnaround progression (rhythm changes)

Finally, try this pattern: 2 1 2 3.  If you play it over all the chords, it goes like this:

Jazz piano upper structure pattern 3 with chord shells over turnaround progression (rhythm changes)

Amazing, huh?!? You can improvise many cool jazzy sounding lines by simply experimenting with patterns.

More Resources

Now, upper structures can be used in a ton of other ways, including playing runs up and down the piano.  Checkout the Jazz Intro and Outro Runs Course where you learn to play 6 beuatiful runs up the piano with upper structure triads.

For a deeper dive of the turnaround progression, checkout our Beginner/Intermediate Jazz Learning Track and Intermediate/Advanced Jazz Learning Track where you’ll learn songs, improv, and soloing techniques over the turnaround progression.

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