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  1. The following article was first published on WikiHow.

    How to Play a Jazz Piano Solo

    Can you play a great jazz piano solo just by instinct? Errol Garner and Chet Baker are two instances of masters that, apparently, couldn’t read music. However, unless you are a genius, you need more than just good instinct.


    Gain a sound knowledge of each chord and its extensions. A good deal of the excitement of jazz comes from the concept of tension to release. This is created by the dominant seventh chord moving to its tonic: V – I: the perfect cadence. Let’s take G7 moving to Cmaj7. All the tension is contained in the G7 and we create this tension with notes known as extensions. These are notes not within the chord. So we have 9, 11 and 13 – let’s call these primary extensions, and b9, #9, #11 and b13 – the secondary extensions or alterations. In the case of G7 these three primary extensions are A, C and E. The four alterations for G7 are Ab, A#, C# and Eb. By combining these extensions with the basic notes of G7 (G, B, D and F) you create the tension that will release into the tonic chord of Cmaj7.
    Get to know your way round the scale or mode of each chord? Again, taking G7, the basic mode that fits any dominant seventh chord is the the Mixolydian mode – just play the major scale but flatten the seventh note. So the Mixolydian mode of G7 is G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G – all the white notes. But to create more tension, and bring in some extensions you could try some other scales. The diminished scale ( just play alternative half step/whole step from the root of any dominant seventh) works really well as it creates a b9, #9 and #11. The notes for G7 would be G, Ab, A#, B, C#, D, E, F, G. Other possibilities are the whole tone scale (whole steps) which gives you the #11 and b13 and the Lydian Dominant (same as Mixolydian but with a raised 4th) which gives you just the #11.
    Combine a knowledge of the chord’s extensions with scales and modes that fit the chord. Yes, this involves a lot of work that needs to become second nature before ‘instinct’ kicks in.

    Well, that’s what I wrote. When I mentioned it on the Linkedin forum ‘Jazz Piano’ it created quite a fuss. The usual extremes from “let’s have more theory” to “who needs theory?”

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