Jazz piano chords can sometimes be confusing at first glance. In this article, I am going to explain how jazz players usually interpret chords and pick tensions to create lush chords. Bear in mind, every musician has their own “tricks” that they use to form their chords. However, there are some basic harmonic concepts that you need to understand and I’ll cover some of them in this article.
If you are looking for an instructional course on creating full chords at the piano, I’d suggest the PianoWithWillie.com Piano Chords Vol 1. This three-DVD set covers both basic seventh chords along with advanced quartal voicings, tensions, alterations, upper-structure triads, rootless voicings and more.
Let’s begin with a basic seventh chord for D-7. Example A is what a typical voicing of a D-7 chord might look like.
O.K., that’s pretty simple, right? Now take a look at example B. Does this still look like a D-7 to you?
You might look at this chord and think F Maj7 or D-9. We can rule out F Maj7 because the root is a D. However, why didn’t I label this chord D-9?
I did not label the chord as D-9 because it is common for jazz players to automatically add tensions to the chords that they are playing. Jazz players know which available tensions each chord can utilize. Personally, I’d rather see a chord written as D-7 than D-9 or D-9 (add 11). I think that many (not all) pianists would agree with me because as jazz players, we are accustomed to working from a “shell”.
Basically, when I see D-7, I already know that the 9th and 11th are probably available to me. When looking at a lead sheet, especially in a low-light gig situation, I want the lead sheet to be as un-cluttered as possible.
The “Right” Tensions
You might be wondering, which tensions are the “right” tensions for a particular chord? Well, let’s go through the three basic chords: Major, minor and Dominant 7th chords.
Major 7th available tensions are: 9, #11 or 6 (usually replaces the 7th)
Minor 7th available tensions: 9 and 11. 6 would replace the 7th.
Dominant 7th available tensions: b9, 9, #9, #11, b13 and 13.
Here is an easy chart:
Chord Type Available Tensions
Major: 9, # 11 or 6 (usually replaces the 7th)
Minor: 9 and 11. 6 would replace the 7th
Dominant: b9, 9, # 9, #11, b13 and 13
So, looking back at the D-7 chord in example B, you’ll notice that I am adding the 9th to the chord. This is just one of many different voicings that I cover in the Piano Chords bundle.
Dominant 7th Tensions
I want to draw your attention to the Dominant 7th available tensions. Once again, they are b9, 9, #9, #11, b13 and 13. Let’s go through the notes for a C7 chord.
C7 chord tones are: C-E-G-Bb
Available tensions are: Db-D-D#-F#-Ab-A
You’ll notice that the only two notes left that are not represented are F and B. F would be a sus4 and B would change the C7 to a C Maj7 chord.
I like to bring this up because remember, when you improvise, you can use any chord tones or available tensions in your solo. So, on a Dominant 7th chord, there are really only two notes that you would try to avoid. This also means that when you play a Dominant 7th chord, you can add almost any note as a tension. Well, let me put it this way, you have a 10 out of 12 chance of hitting the “right” note!
The Million Dollar Question, “Why 13 and not 6?”
I have been asked this question for years! It is a difficult question to answer because it is like asking why does 2+2=4? However, I do have my explanation. Let’s take the C7 chord as an example again.
The chord tones (notes that are found in the chord and not tensions) are C-E-G-Bb for a C7 chord. The C is the root, E is the third, G is the fifth and Bb is the flatted 7th.
It is perfectly reasonable to think of D, F# and A as two, sharp four and six. However, we would call D the ninth, F# sharp eleven and A the thirteenth. You might be asking, “Why?”
Since chords are predominantly formed by “stacking” thirds, we would consider the D-F# and A as being “upper structures” of the chord. See example C below:
Another way of looking at adding tensions is to add a Major 9th above the root, third and fifth of the chord. Example D demonstrates this technique.