I’ve been wanting to add some instructional beginning jazz piano posts and things have slowed down a bit so I’m getting a chance to add some materials. I suppose my intention is for these blurbs to act as a supplement to a good teacher and certainly not a complete method. Those interested in a good method book should check out Mark Levine’s “The Jazz Piano Book” – it’s pretty solid, but is certainly no substitute for a good teacher. Well, with no further ado-
The 2-5-1… the ii-V7-I… however you care to notate it, the progression is the basic building block of jazz, or at least of many classic jazz standards (notably, most of the “Great American Songbook”). I’m not going to get into a theory lesson on modes (Dorian, Mixolydian, Ionian, and their relative functions – maybe in another post) and am going to assume a basic knowledge of jazz theory.
So when you think about chord voicings for a ii-V7-I progression, there are two important things to keep in mind – the chord qualities, and your role as a pianist. For a beginning pianist, the majority of the time you will be playing in a small group or a big band with a bass player, so in these scenarios you can drop the root out of your voicings since the bass player will have it covered. In a Major ii-V7-I progression you’re dealing with three different chord qualities – Major 7th, Dominant 7th , and minor 7th. All three of these chord qualities share the same 5th and since this note doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the chord, this note can be sacrificed as well.
So what does this leave you with? The 3rd and 7th. Just two notes can define a chord in a simple, no-frills voicing and when you distill a 2-5-1 into two-note voicings, an interesting trend emerges – you can very clearly see/hear the half-step resolutions between the three chords. Check out how the 7th of the minor ii chord resolves down a half step to the 3rd of the Dominant V chord, and then how the 7th of the Dominant chord resolves down a half step to the 3rd of the Major I chord. Not only do these voicings function very well in practical applications, they also serve as a great exercise in training your ear to “hear” the way a 2-5-1 progression resolves.
You’ll notice that I call these “Rootless” 2-5-1 voicings but the music below has the root of each of these chords in the left hand. There are a multitude of ways in which you can practice this exercise and I’ll outline a few and their functions.
1) Practice the sheet as is, with left hand playing the bass notes – if you have these voicings available in your right hand, you can play bass in the left an accompany an instrumentalist/vocalist without a bass player
2) Leave the bass notes out and practice the treble clef part with your left hand – having these voicings available in your left hand allows you to accompany yourself when playing a solo or when playing with a trio. It will also allow you to build extensions off these voicings later.
Also, though it can be cumbersome, it is immensely helpful to read the names of the chords out loud as you play them. This helps to ensure that you are not just memorizing patterns but learning chord types and will allow for easier recall of the respective voicing when you see a chord symbol. This is also a great exercise for instrumentalists who have some familiarity with the piano.