The Most Beautiful Jazz Piano Chord
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Do you know how to play an ordinary dominant 7th chord, like G–B–D–F? Can you play a basic minor triad, like C♯–E–G♯? If so, then we’ve got great news for you! You can play the most beautiful jazz piano chord!
To the untrained observer, watching a jazz pianist continually transition from one beautiful jazz piano chord to another almost seems like magic. But it’s really not. In fact, even the most complex jazz piano chords often come from layering simple chords together to sound great.
In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny will show you his all-time favorite jazz piano chord. Even though this fancy jazz chord has a fancy name, the pianists who play theses chords are ordinary people. In fact, you can play amazing jazz piano chords too. In today’s lesson, you’ll learn:
- What is the Most Beautiful Jazz Piano Chord?
- Playing a Beautiful Jazz Piano Intro Run
- How to Build Beautiful Jazz Piano Chords
- What are Upper Structure Triads?
- Using the Most Beautiful Jazz Piano Chord in a Progression
Even though jazz pianists are not magicians, they do know a few tricks. After this lesson, you’ll know some too!
Jazz pianists often reference the beautiful color of the dominant 13(♭9♯11) sound as their favorite jazz piano chord. While this chord symbol may look intimidating, it’s actually relatively easy to construct. For example, to play G13(♭9♯11), play a G7 chord shell in your left hand (Root+3rd+7th) and a C#m triad in your right hand. The right hand triad is often played in 2nd inversion as shown here. This is an example of a jazz piano Upper Structure.
Let’s hear how this dominant 13(♭9♯11) chord might sound when voiced a little lower on the piano, and in the context of a 2-5-1 progression.
Dominant 13(♭9♯11) in a 2-5-1 Progression
What a beautiful sound?! In fact, this chord voicing can be easily adapted into an intro run to setup nearly any jazz tune.
Many piano students assume that what sounds difficult on piano is difficult. Fortunately for all of us, that’s not always true. Perhaps you’ve heard a professional jazz pianist setup a ballad with a blazing arpeggio and assumed they were some sort of childhood prodigy. In this section, you’ll discover how you can pull off this trick too!
We can create an impressive intro run with our G13(♭9♯11) voicing by dividing up the notes between our hands. After striking the initial G13(♭9♯11) chord, we’ll start an ascending run by playing the note G♯ with the 3rd finger in our left hand. Then, play the notes B–C♯–E–F in the right hand using the fingering 1–2–3–4. Next, repeat this pattern in ascending octaves up the keyboard until your left hand culminates on the highest G♯. With just a little practice, you’ll have a sweeping intro run that sounds amazing.
Impressive Intro Run Made Easy
Next, we’ll examine a formula for this particular voicing that you can apply in any key.
In each of the previous examples, the G13(♭9♯11) contains the same notes. However, for the examples in the lower register, the 3rd of the chord is played an octave higher in the right hand.
Beautiful Jazz Chord Formula
If we examine each chord tone from the bottom up, the voicing in our second example is constructed: 1–7–♭9–3–♯11–13.
Playing the 3rd an octave higher creates a beautiful whole tone cluster between the 3rd and ♯11—the notes B and C. Jazz pianists are fond of voicings with clusters because they sound dense, colorful and complex.
Note: If you are not used to considering compound intervals (intervals larger than an octave), the formula above may be confusing. However, you can convert any compound intervals to a simple interval by subtracting the number 7. Therefore, the ♭9 is the same as the ♭2. Similarly, the ♯11 is equivalent to the ♯4. Likewise, the 13 is the same note as the 6th above the root.
Earlier, we hinted that there is another way to recognize and recall this beautiful jazz piano chord. Now, let’s unpack the meaning of upper structures—an important technique for playing professional jazz piano voicings.
In jazz theory, upper structure triads (also “upper structures” or “polychords”) refers to a voicing approach that uses basic triad shapes as the top portion of a more complex chord. The most common upper structures are major and minor triads that contain at least two chord extensions or alterations. Jazz pianists often play upper structure triads in the right hand against a two-or-three-note chord shell in the left hand. The chord shell can be any combination of the root, 3rd and 7th of the chord.
- Check out Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2) to learn how to play 7th chords using left hand chord shells.
- Explore Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3) for a deep dive on upper structures.
Quick Trick for the Most Beautiful Jazz Chord
The focal chord for today’s lesson on the Most Beautiful Jazz Piano Chord features an upper structure triad. Therefore, once we understand the relationship between the upper structure and the root of the chord, we can reproduce this sound in any playing situation.
The quick trick to voice a dominant 13(♭9♯11) is to play a ♯iv minor triad upper structure with respect to the root. You can also think of this as the minor triad that is a tritone above the root. This can be expressed in shorthand as ♯iv/V7. Therefore, the upper structure for G13(♭9♯11) is C♯ minor.
Upper Structures and Enharmonic Spelling
Successful application of upper structure triads will often require students to think enharmonically. For example, the ♭9 of G7 is technically A♭, however, notating the upper structure with this spelling would make the upper structure a D♭ minor triad (D♭–F♭–A♭). This unnecessarily complicates identifying the other chord tones. In particular, the 13th is most easily understood as E♮, as opposed to F♭.
Music publishers usually favor enharmonic spellings that make the upper structure triad most obvious. For example, the notes C♯–E–A♭ are a very literal realization of the ♯11, 13, and ♭9 in G13(♭9♯11). However, the diminished 6th interval between C# and A♭ obscures the fact that the upper structure is indeed a minor triad.
Dominant 13(♭9♯11) Parent Scale
Chord/Scale Relationships are an important concept in jazz theory. For jazz musicians, all musical sounds can be expressed melodically and harmonically—that is, as a scale or as a chord. Therefore, it is important for us to ask, “Where does the dominant 13(♭9♯11) sound come from?”
The parent scale for the dominant 13(♭9♯11) sound is the Half-Whole Diminished Scale, which is also called the Dominant Diminished Scale. This eight-note scale is constructed from alternating ½ steps and whole steps, beginning with a ½ step. Here is the G Dominant Diminished Scale which gives us G13(♭9♯11).
G Dominant Diminished Scale
For pro tips on improvising with the Dominant Diminished Scale, check out Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3).
Now that you know where the most beautiful jazz piano chord comes from and how to play it too, let’s apply this sound in a chord progression.
Jazz pianists commonly substitute the dominant 13(♭9♯11) sound when they encounter a regular dominant 7th chord that resolves down a 5th to a major chord. In other words, we can use the #iv minor upper structure for any V7→I progression.
The following chord progression contains 3 different dominant 7th chords, each of which resolve to a major chord.
Now, let’s hear how this progression sounds with dominant 13(♭9♯11) voicings instead. Note, we’ve also thickened up the resolution chords to include some beautiful major chord voicings.
Chord Progression with #iv/V7 Upper Structure Triads
Great job! Now you’re ready to start using the sound of this beautiful jazz piano chord on jazz standards that you already have in your repertoire.
In today’s lesson, you learn how professional jazz pianists draw on upper structure triads to easily transform regular dominant 7th chords into various advanced altered dominant sounds. In particular, you learned to use the #iv/V7 upper structure to play the dominant 13(♭9♯11) sound, a favorite voicing of many jazz pianists. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, you can comment on this lesson by clicking the YouTube link below. If you have a different favorite jazz piano chord, we’re curious to know which one it is?
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then you’ll love the following resources:
- Play Piano Lead Sheets with Shells & Guide Tones (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2)
- Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3)
- The Diminished Scale Demystified (Level 2)
- Jazz Intro and Outro Runs (Levels 2 & 3)
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings—The Complete Guide (Level 2)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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