The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire) – Jazz Piano Lesson
Have you ever noticed how our senses tell us the holidays are coming? Our sense of sight discerns the days are getting shorter even as the holiday lights begin to illuminate our communities. Our sense of smell detects the aroma of pine and peppermint crescendoing in markets as the year’s end draws nearer. And, of course, our ears anticipate the gentle cocktail jazz soundtrack of the season, which is certain to include “The Christmas Song.” Thankfully, we’ve got you covered here at PianoWithJonny. With today’s Quick Tip, you’ll be ready to play the holiday classic, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire),” in a jazz ballad piano style. In this overview, Jonny walks you through the complete tune phrase-by-phrase. Along the way, he unpacks the essence of the jazz ballad style with dozens of beautiful jazz chords, ornaments, and more.
In fact, you can apply the following techniques to just about any tune to create your own cocktail jazz piano arrangement of other holiday favorites.
Beginner Jazz Ballad Techniques
Diatonic 7th Chords
Occasionally, you may come across a lead sheet or piano arrangement of “The Christmas Song” or another holiday favorite that doesn’t sound too jazzy. Most importantly, you’ll want to use diatonic 7th chords instead of regular 3-note chords to transform the tune into a jazz ballad style. For example, the excerpt below shows how pop lead sheets commonly harmonize the first two measures of “The Christmas Song” for piano.
While there is nothing incorrect about these chords, they are not contextualized for the jazz ballad style. Instead, you’ll want to use diatonic 7th chords in the place of triads like this:
Did you notice how much of a difference it makes to add just one additional note? (In this example, C Major 6 is substituting for the diatonic 7th chord of C Major 7.) If you need a crash course or a refresher to master your diatonic 7th chords in all 12 keys, check out our full-length course on Diatonic 7th Chords Exercises.
Intermediate Jazz Ballad Techniques
Root-to-Chord Left Hand
If you are more of an intermediate player, then you are ready to take the diatonic 7th chords from the previous section and apply them to an accompaniment pattern. Specifically, we’ll apply a left hand stride-ballad pattern to create a classic cocktail jazz feel. Firstly, we’ll play the roots on beats 1 and 3. Secondly, we’ll play a chord voicing in the middle register on beats 2 and 4. This is often called a “root-to-chord” pattern. Guide tones are the best voicing to use for beats 2 and 4 when you’re just getting started. The term guide tones refers to the 3rd and 7th of the chord. Sometimes, it will be more appropriate to use inverted guide tones in which the 3rd is voiced above the 7th. The example below shows a stride-ballad pattern using guide tones and inverted guide tones.
Root-to-Chord Stride-Ballad Accompaniment
One key to creating a great jazz ballad feel is to master playing this pattern with a consistent tempo. Consequently, this lesson includes a backing track to assist you in developing this skill. The backing track appears at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.
The next step is to add some simple harmony in the right hand to support the melody. For instance, you can use a simple technique called 3/7 Harmony in which you select either the 3rd or 7th to harmonize the melody as in the example below.
After that, another beautiful technique you can use to harmonize the melody is to select a chord tone that is a 6th below the melody.
Furthermore, you can also create rich colors by harmonizing the melody using chord extensions. Chord extensions are the 9th, 11th and 13th of chord. However, at first you may find it more simple to think of chord extensions as the 2nd, 4th and 6th. This gives you the same notes (9th = 2nd, 11th = 4th, 13th = 6th). To get started using chord extensions, try adding the 9th to major chords and dominant chords. For minor chords, the 11th is a great choice.
Additionally, you can create a more complex jazz sound by using chord alterations on your dominant chords. To clarify, there are four chord alterations—♭9, ♯9, ♯11 and♭13. For example, the dominant chord below uses G7(♭9) in place of G7 for a darker color.
Advanced Jazz Ballad Techniques
If you are a more advanced player, you’ll love applying following advanced jazz piano techniques to your favorite holiday tunes. This section is divided into three parts—advanced voicings, passing chords and ornamentation.
Advanced Jazz Piano Voicings
Advanced jazz pianists use upper structure triads to combine chord extensions and alterations in breathtaking ways. For example, the G13(♭9) chord on beat 4 below combines the 13th (E) and the ♭9 (G♯ or A♭). However, when you combine these tones with the 3rd of the chord (B) you get an E Major triad—this is called an upper structure triad.
You can learn more about upper structures and master this sound in our Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures course.
Another advanced technique is to harmonize the melody using quartal voicings. Specifically, a quartal voicing is one in which the chord tones are spaced a 4th apart. For instance, in the example below, the C(6/9) voicing uses 4 notes that are each a perfect 4th apart.
Another advanced technique is to add passing chords to your arrangement. Passing chords expand the basic harmonic structure of a tune to add an element of surprise, excitement or tension. In order to grasp how passing chords are used, first listen to the example below in which the melody to “The Christmas Song” is harmonized on piano without passing chords.
In the following example, the each of the dominant chords from the example above have been expanded to include a minor 2 chord. You can often expand a dominant chord by preceding it with the minor 7th chord that is a perfect 5th above. As a result, we have a 2-5-1 in E♭ (Fm7, B♭7, E♭Major 7). Secondly, we have a 2-5-1 in C Major (Dm7, G7…the resolution to C comes when you take the repeat).
Finally, you can use ornamentation to give your jazz holiday arrangement a truly professional sound. First, look for opportunities to add slip notes to the melody. Slip notes are ornaments that add an element of “sparkle” to the melody. Specifically, slip notes approach a melody note from below by a whole step. For example, the note F below is a slip note that ornaments the note G from a whole step below.
Slides are another ornamentation technique that sound great. Slides are similar to slip notes, except that slides are chromatic. In other words, slides approach the target note by a half step for a more bluesy sound. Slides can occur in the melody or in an inner voice as in the example below.
Wow, what a classy jazz piano sound! For more pro ballad tips like this, check out our course on the popular tune Danny Boy.
If you enjoyed this piano lesson on The Christmas Song, you’ll love our full holiday collection of other courses, quick tips and arrangements including the following:
- O Holy Night Contemporary Piano (Level 2, Level 3)
- O Christmas Tree Challenge (Levels 2 & 3)
- Greensleeves (What Child Is This) (Level 2, Level 3)
- Jingle Bells Rag (Level 3)
- Silent Night Rhumba (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for joining us today. We’ll look forward to seeing you again soon!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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