Learn Modern Jazz Piano Chords

Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3
11:20

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
  • Reharmonization
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Jazz Ballads
  • Jazz Swing
  • Latin Jazz

Do you want to learn essential techniques to play modern jazz piano chords? In today’s piano lesson you are going to learn how to construct quartal voicings commonly used to get that modern jazz piano sound. You’ll learn:

  • The most common scale used for soloing over minor chords
  • The minor 11 chord
  • Harmonizing with minor 11 quartal voicings
  • Modern jazz piano comping with parallel quartal chord voicings

Now whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced pianist, you’ll learn concepts in this lesson you can use to take your playing to the next level. Let’s get started.

Step 1: The Dorian Scale

It’s important to know how to build a Dorian scale if you want to use modern jazz piano chords like a pro.

What is a Dorian scale?

A Dorian scale is constructed by playing a major scale beginning from the 2nd tone. That’s it! This is also called the Dorian mode. For today’s Quick Tip we are looking at C Dorian. One easy way to construct the C Dorian scale is to think of it as a Bb Major scale beginning from C (the 2nd tone).

Note diagram showing relationship between Bb Major (Ionian) and C Dorian
Note diagram showing relationship between Bb Major and C Dorian

Another way Jazz musicians think about modes is to compare them to a Major scale that has the same starting pitch. For example, compare C Major and C Dorian. Which scale tones are different?

Comparison of C Major and C Dorian—what scale tones are different?
Comparison of C Major and C Dorian—what scale tones are different?

As you can see, the 3rd and 7th tones of a Dorian scale are lowered when compared to a Major scale beginning on the same pitch.

Before we go on, let’s review to make sure you’ve got it.

What are two ways to find any Dorian scale?

(For review, let’s consider F Dorian .)

  1. Think in terms of the Major scale in which your starting note would be the 2nd tone.  (Example: What Major scale has F as the 2nd tone?  Answer: Eb Major —>3 flats—>Bb, Eb, Ab.)
  2. Think in terms of the Major scale beginning on your staring note and then lower the 3rd and 7th.  (Example: What notes change in F Major by lowering the 3rd and 7th to make F Dorian?  Answer: Ab & Eb…remember F Major already has a Bb.)

Both methods give you the following scale:  F   G   Ab   Bb   C   D   Eb

Did you get it? If you need a little more help, I give a longer video explanation of the two methods to find C Dorian in lesson 3 of my course on Scales for Improv on 7th Chords.

The Dorian Scale and Improvisation

The Dorian scale is an essential scale jazz pianists use for soloing over minor chords. Can you guess why based on the image below?

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That’s right! The Cm7 chord with all of its extensions (9th, 11th, 13th) forms the same set of notes as the Dorian scale.

If you want a deep dive into chord extensions, check out my course on Chord Extensions.

Step 2: Minor 11 Quartal Voicing

The picture below shows a Cm11 chord in root position.

Cm11 in root position

Modern jazz pianists will often play this chord using a 1-11-7-3-5 construction. This is described as a quartal voicing because the notes are spaced primarily a 4th apart from each other.  The top interval is an exception—it is a Major 3rd.

Cm11 Modern Jazz Piano Chord So What Quartal Voicing
Cm11 quartal voicing

This voicing is also known as a “So What” voicing because jazz pianist Bill Evans prominently featured this voicing on the Miles Davis tune “So What” from the legendary 1959 album Kind of Blue.

Step 3: Parallel Quartal Voicings

Do you want to really impress your listeners with cool modern sounding jazz piano chords? You can use the 1-11-7-3-5 construction to harmonize each note of the C Dorian scale. When you use the same voicing to harmonize different melody notes, this is called parallel motion.  Parallel motion occurs when all of the chord tones move in the same direction by the same distance. Our example below begins with a G in the melody and moves up the C Dorian scale using parallel quartal voicings.

Modern Jazz Piano Chords—C Dorian Piano Harmonization Using Parallel Minor 11 Quartal Voicing
C Dorian scale harmonized using parallel minor 11 quartal voicings

Did you notice that some of the chords you get by harmonizing with parallel quartals have accidentals that are outside the C Dorian scale? (Ab, Db, Gb, Cb.) That’s okay. These dissonances are controlled when they occur in parallel motion and support a melody note that is in the scale. This is part of what gives modern jazz piano chords a distinctive sound.

What about fingerings?

Let me give you a practical tip about fingerings. Try to avoid using the same fingers for successive chords. Look for fingerings that allow you to smoothly connect as many notes as possible as you move from one chord to the next.

Preferred Piano Fingerings Parallel Quartal Voicings
Preferred fingerings for chords moving in parallel motion

Step 4: Apply Parallel Quartals to Melodies

The lesson sheet that accompanies this lesson has five melodies for you to practice using minor 11 parallel quartals. Try using the chord voicings from step 3 to harmonize this melody?

C Dorian Piano Melody 1
Sample C Dorian piano melody for harmonization

If you think you’ve got it, you are ready to play along with the backing track. You can download the backing track on this page after logging into your membership. If you need to see the harmonization written out, I’ve done the first one for you below.

C Dorian Piano Melody 1 Harmonized
Sample C Dorian piano melody harmonized using parallel minor 11 quartal voicings

Great job! You are now on your way to mastering modern jazz piano chords with these minor 11 parallel quartals. Be sure to download the lesson sheet music to practice with all 5 sample melodies.

You can also check out our Smart Sheet Music to play this lesson in any one of the 12 keys.

Remember, feel is part of the style so you’ll want to download the backing track to play along.

Now if you enjoyed this lesson and you want to learn more modern jazz piano chords, I highly recommend these PWJ resources:

I’ll see you in the next Quick Tip piano lesson!

Your teacher,

Jonny May

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