There are many different ways to interpret chord symbols on the piano. This lesson will cover a typical approach used for playing piano in a jazz combo known as left-hand rootless voicings. These voicings assume knowledge of 7th chord types (Major 7th, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th, Diminished 7th) and basic chord symbol nomenclature.
Rootless voicings have their origin in the small combo and jazz trio playing of the 1940’s and 50’s. As the bass took on a more prominent role in the combo, the piano’s left hand began including more harmonic information while leaving the lowest voice to the bass player. Listen to Red Garland with Miles Davis on “It Could Happen To You”, Bill Evan’s album “Portrait in Jazz” featuring the bass playing of Scott LaFaro, or Herbie Hancock on “I Fall In Love Too Easily” - The Miles Davis Quintet Live In Germany: November 7th, 1967 for a range of examples of this piano style.
In the 21st century, rootless piano voicings are essential to feeling comfortable playing with a jazz trio or small combo. They allow the player to freely improvise with their right hand while keeping the harmony clear and rich in the left hand. They also allow the pianist to “comp” (meaning to provide accompaniment) for other players’ solos.
We’ll begin by looking at foundational left-hand rootless voicings in the context of a II-V-I progression in a major key:
The above example contains a II-V-I in the key of C major followed by a II-V-I in the key of Bb major. The left hand voicings are examples of common rootless voicings which might be used in a combo context. You’ll notice that all of the chords include the 9th instead of the root, and the V7 chords include both the 9th and the 13th. This is a common way to approach a II-V-I in a major key.
It’s important to take note of the range in which these chords are being played. With 4-note voicings, moving too low on the keyboard will result in muddy chords which don’t communicate the harmony as clearly. A good rule of thumb is to “straddle” the A below middle C when choosing your voicings. The example below is II-V-I a fourth away from the above example, but voiced to keep them in a similar range:
We also recommend starting with only one (maybe two) voicings for a given chord. This will more quickly equip you with automatic voicings for chords and prevent “analysis paralysis” when reading through a lead sheet for the first time. As you gain more experience, you can branch out into other voicing options without sacrificing the groove. Your first and primary goal should be to play the music and make it through a tune confidently with other musicians. If you keep the number of chord voicings needed to a minimum, you’ll be able to focus on other elements of the music, like the rhythm, dynamics, and feel.
If you’ve worked on learning left-hand rootless voicings in the past without success, consider joining Jazz Night School’s online class The Role of Piano in a Jazz Combo to get a guided learning experience.