Jazz Piano Accompaniment – The Definitive Guide
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Have you ever considered how your role as a jazz pianist changes from solo piano situations to those requiring accompaniment? Perhaps you’ve learned a handful of jazz standards for solo piano, but how do you adapt them into a jazz piano accompaniment when you’re with a vocalist? In today’s Quick Tip, we’ll cover 3 essential jazz piano accompaniment techniques. Each of these techniques work great when accompanying a soloist in the jazz swing style. In fact, using the classic tune “Blue Moon” as an example, you’ll learn the following:
- 1 Jazz Chord Progression
- 2 Chord Voicing Approaches
- 4 Jazzy Rootless Voicings
- 3 Essential Accompaniment Techniques
This definitive guide to jazz piano accompaniment includes tips for beginners to advanced students to benefit all playing levels.
Let’s dive in!
Intro to Jazz Piano Accompaniment
To begin, let’s look at the chord progression for the tune “Blue Moon.” This tune uses a common chord progression called The Turnaround Progression. Here is an example of the turnaround progression in the key of C shown with root position 7th chords.
This progression is so common is jazz repertoire that it literally occurs hundreds of jazz standards! Therefore, you’ll want to be sure to learn it in several keys. In fact, you can use our Smart Sheet Music to easily transpose this lesson into any key. Also, you’ll want to be sure to download the lesson sheet and backing tracks included with this lesson. They appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
Now, in order to accompany a vocalist, you would not want to simply play root position chords, right? Instead, you need to be able to apply some style formulas to this progression to make it swing. But first, let’s look a few more interesting ways to play these chords.
Chord Voicings for Jazz Piano Accompaniment
The first approach for beginner and early intermediate students to consider is voicing the chords using guide tones. This technique is quite accessible and sounds much more characteristic of the jazz style as compared to root position chords. The term guide tones refers to the notes that form the 3rd and 7th of the chord. The example below shows the turnaround progression using guide tones in the right hand with the left hand playing each root.
Beginner Chord Voicing Approach
Did you notice in the example above that sometimes the 7th appears on top and at other times the 3rd appears on top? The term inverted guide tones specifically refers to when the 3rd is voiced above the 7th. For example, the CMaj7 and Dm7 use guide tones while the A7 and G7 use inverted guide tones. So how to you know which to use? The key is to select the voicing the uses the closest movement from chord to chord. In fact, in many cases you will notice that there is a common tone as you move from one chord to the next. You want to keep the common tone in the same octave. Keeping the common tone will generally guide you to the preferred voicing. (Hint: when playing a cycle of 5th progression, you will always alternate between guide tones and inverted guide tones.)
To learn more about voicing chords with guide tones, check out our full-length course on Chord Shell & Guide Tone Exercises (Level 2).
Now, if you have more playing experience and these chords sound a bit too sparse for your taste, you can get a richer sound by playing rootless voicings instead.
Intermediate Chord Voicing Approach
As you can hear, using rootless voicings gives this progression and very jazz flavor!
What are rootless voicings?
Rootless voicings are jazz piano voicings that feature chord extensions of the 9th or the 13th while omitting the 5th and the root. Rootless voicings are played in the middle register of the piano and can be played in either hand.
If you are unfamiliar with these voicings, the theory involved in understanding their construction is usually quite daunting at first. This is particularly true if you are still building your knowledge of scales and key signatures. However, most leading jazz piano educators recommend that the best way to begin to understand them is simply beginning to put them to use. Getting started with a few rootless voicings in the context of a jazz tune, like in we’re doing in this lesson, will help you begin to process the theory. We also have plenty of resources on this topic to assist you:
- Rootless Voicings—Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
- 251 Rootless Voicings—Right Hand Chords (Level 3)
- 251 Rootless Voicings—Chords Both Hands (Level 3)
- Rootless Voicings—Chord Types on Minor 2-5-1 (Level 3)
Now that you have some great jazz piano voicings, let’s take a look at getting that jazz swing feel for your piano accompaniment.
3 Jazz Swing Piano Accompaniments
In this section, we’ll cover three essential jazz swing techniques that professional jazz pianists regularly use to accompany a vocalist.
The 4-On-The-Floor accompaniment is a great place to begin since it is the least complex in terms of hand independence. However, this technique is not just for beginners. All pros use this technique when they want to lock in the time and simply let a soloist step out and swing. This is also a common left hand comping approach when you want to take a solo yourself. Check out this 4-On-The-Floor jazz piano accompaniment groove on the turnaround progression for “Blue Moon.”
While jazz pianists commonly use “4-On-the-Floor” to describe this piano groove, the term originates with drumming, where 4-On-the-Floor refers to playing the bass drum (“the floor”) on each beat. In jazz drumming, this technique is supposed to be “felt, not heard” in the swing style. Similarly, in order to get the right feel on piano, you’ll want to be sure not to play this feel too loudly. In addition, be sure not to over pedal this groove. It sounds best a little dry, although many players add a touch of pedal on each beat.
The next jazz piano accompaniment technique is a “2-feel.” This name refers specifically a bass line that accentuates beats 1 and 3. Therefore, the most basic 2-feel is a half note bass line. However, most players will ornament this groove by adding filler notes to enhance the swing feel. Here is a 2-feel groove over the turnaround progression for “Blue Moon.”
Notice that the first chord in each measure is played short while the second chord is played long. This is very characteristic of the swing genre and mimics a horn section.
As you may have noticed by now, your role is a jazz piano accompanist really is to imitate an ensemble when it’s just you and a vocalist. That brings us to our final jazz piano accompaniment technique.
Walking Bass Jazz Piano Accompaniment
Our final jazz piano accompaniment technique is arguably the most important—the “walking bass.” In this technique, your left hand simulates the jazz swing bass line of a bass player. Check out this example of a walking bass jazz piano accompaniment for “Blue Moon.”
What a great sound! Let’s take a closer look at this bass line. Like the 2-feel, this bass line contains filler notes to enhance the swing feel. This is definitely an advanced technique that requires quite a bit of hand independence. However, you can omit the notes on the “and of 2” and the “and of 4” for a more accessible version of this groove and it will still sound quite good.
So how do you know which notes to play in your bass line? In general, a good bass line places the root or 5th of the chord on the strong beats (1 and 3). In our example, since we have 2 chords per measure, we are using the root of each chord on the strong beats. Next, it is common to use passing tones on the weak beats of the measure (2 and 4). Our example uses a chromatic upper neighbor note on the weak beat to approach following root. That is to say, we are simply approaching each root from a ½ step above.
Congratulations, you’ve completed this lesson and are well on your way to being ready to swing behind your soloist! To learn more on accompanying in the jazz swing style, check out our full-length courses Jazz Swing Accompaniment 1 (Level 2) and Jazz Swing Accompaniment 2 (Level 3).
Here is a summary of courses related to today’s lesson:
- Jazz Swing Accompaniment (Level 2, Level 3)
- Jazzy Blues Comping (Level 2, Level 3)
- Jazz Walking Bass Lines (Level 2, Level 3)
- Cycle of 5ths in 3 Jazz Styles (Level 2, Level 3)
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2)
- Autumn Leaves Jazz Swing 1 (Level 2)
- Fly Me the Moon (Level 2, Level 3)
- Heart and Spirit (Level 2, Level 3)
- O Christmas Tree (Level 2, Level 3)
- Rootless Voicings—Chord Types & 2-5-1 Application (Level 3)
Thanks for joining us today. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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