Tag Archives: improvisation

Although improvisation can be completely free, most jazz improvisation is built over the chord sequence of a jazz standard tune.

Learning to play jazz

Learning to play jazz

Play jazz: practice and theory

Have you ever been asked the question “What do you do?” When I used to reply “I’m a singing coach” the usual annoying response was “Do you know anyone famous?” Now that I teach jazz piano, an equally infuriating reaction is “How can you teach improvisation? I thought you just make stuff up.” However I have to admit that they do have a point. I can’t imagine that fifty years ago jazz players had the same access to teachers, courses or even books on the practical aspects of playing jazz. So how did they learn? Perhaps they did just ‘make stuff up’ but they would have also learned by listening to other musicians. More importantly, their musical progress would have evolved through the act of playing alongside fellow musicians.

Nowadays, there is far more access to jazz education, with full-time degree courses, jazz teachers, online tutorials, and books by the cartload. But however much we fill our heads with jazz theory, there is still no substitute for the two activities that jazz musicians have always engaged in: listening and playing together. Understanding tritone substitution and gaining the ability to play
II-V-I’s in every key will is will get you so far, but until you get out there and play with other musicians your progress will eventually hit a brick wall. This also applies to only ever playing along to backing tracks. These tracks will help you with timing and acquainting yourself with a piece, but they are no substitute for the real thing.

Even if you have a personal teacher playing alongside you, there is still a difference between this relatively safe activity and playing in a room with a group of fellow musicians. Taking this to the next level has to be performing live. Even if you are just playing to the barman one can only benefit from this shift up in gear: this is now a gig rather than a practice section or rehearsal. There is no longer the option to stop half way through if something goes wrong but there’s also the added buzz that only comes from performing rather than rehearsing.

So, assuming that you are now playing with other musicians and doing the odd gig, is there really any need to learn theory? Let’s break this down.

Reading the dots

I’m not one of the lucky ones that can carry dozens of tunes around in my head. However, I played classical music in my younger days and can therefore read music. But is it an essential requirement? For me, I know that this skill has enabled me to work as a pro musician for 40 years but, generally speaking, I’d say that you can get by just by reading the treble clef, in other words, the top line or melody of a tune.

Recognising the chord symbols

This has to be an essential requirement, for the simple reason that a lead sheet comprises of the top line (melody) plus chord symbols. Some single line players (sax etc) have been known to get away without knowing their chords, but for us piano players it’s our bread and butter. You must work towards recognising chord symbols for all major, minor and dominant seven chords in every key. There is no escape from this requirement.

Reading the map

Just seeing each chord individually is not enough. You may have your favourite voicings and know scales that work over each chord, but playing a solo by referring to each chord individually will sound unmusical and disjointed. All songs have a map: chords fall into groups and these groups of chords usually belong to a key centre.

Key centres

Most tunes begin in one key but then move through a number of related keys before eventually returning to the original key (the key signature). The chord chart doesn’t inform you explicitly of these key changes. It is for you to decipher them. The big clue is to be found in the dominant 7 chord, which usually ‘points’ towards its tonic, in other words, the key centre. So, for example, if you see the chord A7, it ‘wants’ to resolve to D major or D minor. Once you have identified a group of chords that all belong to one key centre, you can then play through this passage in a way that makes musical sense. The most common sequence in jazz is II –V – I.

Scales and modes

Choose any chord, no matter how complex, and there’s bound to be a scale or mode that can be played over it. The danger here is that just running up and down these scales and modes will produce bad jazz. But, that said, you need to gain some knowledge of these scales and how they relate to chords.

Chord tones

There are certain notes within a chord that identify that chord and need to be targeted. Top of the list is the 3. This is the note that tells us whether a chord is major or minor. Nest in importance comes the 7. The difference, for example, between C7 and C major 7 is whether the note ‘B’ is natural or flattened. These 3s and 7s need to be highlighted in order to illuminate the harmonic line of your solo.


It can always be said that all the above can be learned by just having a good ear. But in the end it’s finding your own balance between studying the theory and just playing the music.






Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano

Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano

Learning about jazz piano: a musical journey.

Two facts: for over 40 years, while learning about jazz piano, I have been making my living as a professional keyboard player and piano teacher, and yet failed all my music exams at secondary school.

Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano

I’m sure that this failure was partly due to the arrogance of being a typical teenager. I remember making it clear to my beleaguered music teacher that I preferred listening to my Ray Charles records than being forced to study the harmony of Bach. But by the age of 16, when I was already playing Hammond organ in rock bands, music at school had no relevance to me. Although I had learned to read music from private piano teachers, this skill had no place in the environment of a rock band. Tunes were learned not from sheet music, but by listening to records and then transcribing the chords.

Here’s me in the mid 60’s playing organ in an R&B band at some London club.

learning jazz piano
Me in the 60’s

Many years later, when employed as a musical director and theatre composer, my chequered musical education became both a hindrance and blessing. I was now not only surrounded by classically trained musicians, but actually in charge of them. Then suddenly, during a rehearsal of one of my compositions, this uncomfortable situation was turned on its head, when I made the following, seemingly outrageous suggestion to the musicians:

“I haven’t written out this arrangement. Here’s the chord chart. Let’s just improvise and see what emerges!”

In that moment, as I witnessed classically trained musicians freeze at the very mention of the word ‘improvise,’ I recognised the true value of my improvisational skills. The realisation that I possessed a skill that ‘straight’ musicians didn’t have turned my musical life around. It was this moment that ultimately led to my current profession, which is to teach jazz piano to classical and ‘straight’ pianists.

I possess what is known as ‘a good ear.’ When I hear a tune or song, I’m usually able to identify its chord sequence and translate this to the piano. My ‘good ear’ is not a talent I was born with, but a skill that has been developed over the years when accompanying singers and transcribing chords from records.

So here’s the irony: Yes, I would dearly love to play a faultless, exquisite rendition of a Beethoven sonata. But, equally, many classically trained pianists would pay money (and do pay me!) just to sit at the piano and play a 12-bar blues or solo over the chords of a Gershwin tune.

Clearly, there is a middle ground; for any musician, both these skills are invaluable. But if I were to fight my own corner, I’d state the following. Playing music is an aural activity, rather than visual: it requires the ear rather than the eye. Sheet music is just the information. Whether interpreting a Chopin Nocturne or a pop song, we need to grasp the harmonic journey rather than just typing out the notes. And we grasp this harmonic construction with our ‘musician’s ears.’

But this is more than just a theory to ponder; you can work on developing this skill right now, by testing yourself with a simple children’s song or Christmas carol.

  • Try identifying the chord changes, then translating them to the piano. Begin by just spotting the tonic to dominant movement: this is chord 1 to chord 5.
  • Now add chord 4, the subdominant.
    In the key of F major the sequence I – IV – V is simply C – F – G.
    If you can recognise the movement between these three chords you have already decoded thousands of 50’s pop songs.

In summary: stop relying on the music and start using your ear. Perhaps it’s time you were learning jazz piano!

Paul Abrahams at Learning Jazz Piano Online
April 2014

If you are a classical pianist learning about jazz piano, the above article, that I wrote for the website www.pianoplayingadvice.com may help you.




Introduction to Learn Jazz Piano eBook 4

Introduction to Learn Jazz Piano eBook 4

The best way to use this book is in conjunction with my learn jazz piano video course.


Over the years, many accomplished classical pianists have asked me to teach them jazz improvisation. It has never ceased to amaze me that they can sight read a Mozart Sonata, yet are usually totally unable to improvise. They are equally amazed that ‘we’ can just sit at the piano and make up stuff. Apparently, for a number of these talented classical musicians, the subject of improvisation was virtually ignored in a three-year music degree course, even though great composers such as J. S. Bach were famed for their improvisatory skills.

These gifted classical pianists yearn to improvise, but often become fearful at the prospect of no longer reading the notes in front of them. They marvel at the way we seem to be conjuring flurries of notes out of nowhere, as though we’re performing magic. And in a way, we are, although a lot of work has been put in before the magic can be created.

It could be said that improvisation is the highest form of music. We seem to be creating new and spontaneous compositions, but the truth is that our improvisations have both structure and logic. There are certain rules that we are following (or breaking). Moreover, our seeming spontaneity is  both consciously and subconsciously influenced by the generations of master jazz musicians that have gone before us.

Much has been written about the harmonic language of Bill Evans, and indeed, behind the sheer beauty of his playing, there lies a logical structure. But a more interesting case is Thelonious Monk, with his alleged eccentric approach and wrong-sounding notes. Yet, when analyzed, everything Monk plays has logic and structure.

In order to create a meaningful solo, two seemingly contradictory skills need to be in place: harmonic and rhythmic understanding, alongside an empty mind. Once the understanding is in place, this empty mind takes over and is totally alert, like an antenna. Once you have put in the preparation and are fully awake, you are ready for anything.

For eBooks 1, 2 and 3 follow this link.

learn jazz piano
My eBooks


Lesson 19 – jazz improvisation: reharmonising a jazz standard

Lesson 19 - jazz improvisation: reharmonising a jazz standard

Jazz improvisation

Click here for lesson 19

I’ve finally completed lesson 19  of jazz improvisation, so you can now download it.
This new 30 minute video shows you how to reharmonise a lead sheet and employ substitute chords to make for a more creative solo. This will take your jazz improvisation to the next level.

Following on from lesson 18, I’ve taken All The Things You Are and substituted many of the chords. I also show you how to do the same with Take The A Train.

jazz improvisation
All The Things You Are

Once you see how it’s done, you can do this for yourself with any jazz standard. The most common way to reharmonise a chord is by substituting a dominant 7 with its tritone. This works well when the dominant 7 is about to resolve to its tonic.  For example, instead of G7 resolving to Cmaj7 we substitute a Db7, which is three whole steps (or tones) from the original chord.

Get lesson 19  here

Jazz piano lesson 16: Tritone Substitution

Jazz piano lesson 16: Tritone Substitution

Jazz piano lesson 16 now available: tritone substitution

Jazz piano lesson 16 of my online video course, Learn Jazz Piano, is all about tritone substitution.
I start by showing you how diminished scales weave through dominant 7th chords and how you can solo over 8 chords using just 1 diminished scale.This leads us to tritone substitution: replacing one 7th chord with another.
The tritone, also known as the devil’s interval, is the key to unlocking a new and more advanced way of soloing.
tritone substitution
Original chord & tritone

Lesson 15: chord voicing

Lesson 15: chord voicing

For a jazz pianist, chord voicing is an essential skill.

I’m now in the process of preparing lesson 15 of my video course Learn Jazz Piano Online. This 15th lesson of Learn Jazz Piano Online will be all about chord voicing, particularly how to voice left hand rootless chords. Playing these chords will achieve two things: the bass player will have more space and your own solos will sounds so much better.

Lesson 15

Here is a summary of all 14 learn jazz piano lessons online video lessons so far:

Lesson 1 – From scales to chords

  • Soloing over the Pentatonic scale
  • Mastering intervals
  • The V – I concept
  • One formula to construct all major scales
  • 7 chords, one family
learn jazz piano online
7 chords, 1 scale

Lesson 2 – Building a chord sequence

  • Chord sequences
  • The relative minor and its scales
  • The family row of minor triads
  • Soloing in a minor key

Lesson 3 –  Mastering every key

  • The circle of 5ths
  • How to play in any key
  • Preview of the II-V-I sequence
  • Introduction to the turnaround

Lesson 4 – Swing time

  • Learning to swing
  • The construction of 7th chords
  • How to interpret chord symbols
  • Shells – how not to upset the bass player

Lesson 5 – Walking 3s

  • Turnarounds part 2: I – VI – II -V
  • Walking 3s and 7s: the seeds of vertical improvisation.
  • How to use passing notes.
  • Voice leading

Lesson 6 – Extensions

  • Extensions: how to use 9ths, 11ths and 13th.
  • Know which extensions work with which chord.
  • Voicing a chord using extensions.
  • Introduction to Modes.

Lesson 7 – The II-V-I sequence

  • Master the II – V – I sequence in all keys
  • Seven soloing techniques over II – V – I
  • Alterations: know your sharp 11 from your flat 13
  •  Flat 9s and the diminished chord

Lesson 8 – How to comp

  • Comp like a pro
  • Find the best chord voicings
  • Use the right extensions
  • Build up to a five-note comp
  • Explore rhythmic variations

Lesson 9 – Modes

  • Know your Mixodydian from your Dorian
  • Grasp the connection between modes and chords
  • The art of modal soloing and comping
  • How to play ‘So What’

Lesson 10 – Autumn Leaves part 1

  • Playing your first standard
  • Learning the melody
  • The comp
  • The shells
  • The solo

Lesson 11 – Autumn Leaves part 2

  • Taking Autumn Leaves to the next level
  • How to fill out the melody
  • Comping with alterations
  • Soloing with vertical improvisation

Lesson 12 – The Blues part 1

Play with confidence over the blues.

  • How to solo creatively
  • The minor blues
  • Blues in 12/8
    Plus lots of tips, tricks and licks!

Lesson 13 – The Blues part 2

  • Taking the blues beyond the basics.
  • Chord changes that turn blues into jazz.
  • Lydian dominant & diminished scales.
  • Rootess left-hand voicings.

Lesson 14 – Bebop blues

  • Left hand 4-note rootless voicings
  • Constructing the Bebop sequence.
  • How to solo over a Bebop blues
  • Comping over a Bebop blues

My article on WikiHow: ways to study jazz piano

My article on WikiHow: ways to study jazz piano

The way to study jazz piano: theory or instinct?

The following article was first published on WikiHow. 

Study jazz piano: How to Play a jazz piano solo

Is there just too much theory when you study jazz piano? Can you play a great jazz piano solo just by instinct? The story goes that Errol Garner   couldn’t read music, but unless you’re  a genius, you need more than just good instinct when learning jazz piano.

study jazz piano
Erroll Garner


  1. 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: known as ‘The Perfect Cadence.’ Let’s take G7 moving to Cmaj7. All the tension is contained within the G7, and we first create this tension with notes known as extensions. These are notes not within the chord but within the scale. So we have 9, 11 and 13. The remaining notes: b9, #9, #11 and b13 are known as alterations. In the case of G7, the three  extensions are A, C and E. The four alterations for G7 are Ab, A#, C# and Eb. By combining these extensions and alterations with the basic notes of G7 (G, B, D and F) you create the tension that will release into the tonic chord of Cmaj7.
  2. 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.
  3. Combine a knowledge of the chord’s 3 extensions and 4 alterations 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 posted my article on the Linkedin forum ‘Jazz Piano’ it created quite a fuss., with the usual extremes from “let’s have more theory” to “who needs theory?” I feel pretty much the same as I did when I wrote it. For most of us, the work and preparation has to be put in before we can push it back into our subconscious for a performance. When you study jazz piano there has to be a balance between theory and using your creativity and instinct.