The So What Jazz Piano Voicing
A Jazz Piano Voicing To Be Cherished
It gives me great pleasure to focus some time on a jazz piano voicing that has certainly stood the test of time and one that, if you’re not currently incorporating it into your playing, it’s likely you’re missing out on something. Today, it is considered to be a rather common jazz piano voicing among jazz pianists. You will want to learn about it. You’ll also want to master it. I am referring to the So What jazz piano voicing.
It is referred to by this name due to the fact that it became popular ever since jazz pianist Bill Evans played this particular voicing repeatedly throughout the form of Miles Davis’ standard tune So What on his Kind of Blue album, which was recorded in 1959. Let’s give a listen to this original recording:
Listening to just a few moments will have you hearing Bill Evans playing this voicing. This is what it looks like:
As you listen, you will notice that the voicing moves down a whole step:
To play the voicing, use the left hand 1 and 4 fingers (ring finger and thumb) to play the lower two notes and the right hand 1, 3, and 5 (thumb, middle finger, and pinkie) to play the upper three. Of course, you have your options, though this is a very practical way to perform it.
It may be interesting to recognize that the notes of the So What voicing coincide with the lower five strings of a guitar.
This voicing is often used as an alternative to quartal voicings which generally consist of fourth intervals exclusively. Taking a close look at the So What voicing leads you to seeing that its lower four notes actually constitute a quartal voicing. We have three Perfect 4th intervals; however, further interest is added when a Major 3rd “tops the cake.” This combination of intervals creates a unique sound and its identity in recording will soon be instantly recognized by you as you listen more and more.
The tune is based on the Dorian mode. If you play the C Major scale on D (instead of C) and continue to the D one octave higher, you’ll be playing the Dorian mode, which looks like this:
It easily becomes apparent that if you were to play and hold down the members of both voicings illustrated above (or even just the lower four members), you will see that you are playing all the tones of the D Dorian mode.
It will be valuable to play this scale slowly and listen to it. Then play the C Major scale. Go back and forth. Don’t hurry the process. Simply allow your ears to hear and appreciate the distinctive sound of the Dorian mode. The tune So What is based on this scale. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that these two voicings, which constitute this mode when combined, work very well when used to comp while playing within it. Because the tune is based on this mode, it is often referred to as a modal tune.
I personally had a lot of fun creating a video session that focuses on the So What voicing. If you are interested in exploring it, please click here and accept my gratitude for taking advantage of it.
Practicing Piano Chord Voicings
As with learning any voicing, here are three approaches that will serve you well when it comes to mastering this piano chord voicing:
- Start by playing one of the voicings. Then transpose the voicing up one half step. This can be easily achieved by “sliding” each finger that is playing the original voicing up by “feeling up” one half step. Continue up in half steps up the piano keyboard. until you have played through an entire octave, thus having played the voicing in all the keys. After you ascend, descend down in half steps. This is perhaps the easiest way to play through a voicing through all the keys. After a while, you will simply be able to play them “on demand.”
- Play one of the voicings and transpose the voicing around the circle of fifths. “Jumping” from one voicing to the next, rather than having the luxury of “feeling up the keys” more or less “forces” you to see the chord ahead of time. Of course, you can “jump” using various intervals and I certainly encourage that. This is a real confidence builder!
- Incorporate the voicing in tunes! Yes, use what you learn, as I always encourage. Comp over the form of the tune So What using the voicings. How appropriate! Then play the song in another key, using the appropriate voicings. Play in other keys!
Modal Playing: Ahhh The Flexibility!
I would like to touch upon something interesting. This is one reason this jazz piano voicing lends itself to being so popular. The two voicings illustrated above can be thought of as an E Minor chord and an D Minor chord, respectively. More accurately, we have “minor 11th” chords here: specifically, we have Emin11 and Dmin11 (or E-11 and D-11). Listening to the tune So What, you hear the E-11 being played first as it resolves to the D-11, which corresponds to the D Dorian mode, on which the tune is based. However, you could actually play the E-11 for an even longer duration and have it sound good. That’s an interesting characteristic of modal playing. When you are playing within a mode, there is so much flexibility. As long as you are tones withing the scale, you are said to be playing within mode. So even while you are playing that E-11 voicing, you can be said to be playing “in D Dorian.”
The flexibility goes wll beyond this when it comes to playing chord voicings like this one. Here is what I mean…
Abracadabra! One Becomes…
Take a look once again at the chord voicing for D-11 above. Do you notice that the members of this voicing are also members of other chords? As an example, a Bb6/9 chord contains the same chord tones! A G-11 chord also shares these chord tones! An F6/9 chord does, too! It can actually go much further than this. Suddenly, what was considered to be a very common jazz piano voicing becomes one that isn’t so common!
So, you see, my friend, learning just one voicing, such as this one, in only one position results in your having learned so many more! This is one of those beautiful things about music. Literally, you could spend hours looking into one voicing, exploring the many different which in which it can be used!
Now, hold on a second here. I can almost hear some readers saying, “But that’s overwhelming! How am I going to learn and remember all the possibilities even for just one voicing?!”
This is important to acknowledge. Your awareness of the various chords that one voicing can be used for will expand with experience. You can count on that. However, if you make it a point right now to master playing that chord structure, playing it will be no challenge for you as that awareness unfolds. You will, little by little, begin to see that voicing in different ways. Isn’t it great that you’ve got the technical challenge out of the way as you discover more and more of these possibilities so you can just play them instantly whenever you like? You bet!
Another way of putting it? Suppose you made a point of saving up $5000 in cash. Finally, you have accumulated that money. What are the different ways you can apply that $5000 to? I think you would agree that there are countless ways in which you could enjoy that money. However, was it necessary to be aware of all of them in order to accumulate that amount of money? Of course not. Simply having it on hand made all those ways of using it possible!
Adopting that mind set is something that I hope all those who become involved with ProProach make a point of doing. This will have a magnificent impact on what is experienced during those 24 weeks. Furthermore, as the program is followed again and again, your eyes will open more and more… and so will your ears!
One more thing I would like to point out here. Earlier, we took a look at how the the So What contains within it a quartal voicing, looking at the lower four members. By simply leaving off that top note, we still have a D Minor voicing , just without the 5th of the chord (if we are thinking in terms of D Minor, of course!). What do you have if you just play the lower three members of this voicing? You still have yet another voicing for Dmin11!
Yes, learning even one new voicing is like striking gold. That’s the way I see it. Having a passion for the world of jazz piano voicings will lead you to more and more (and more) discoveries. You see, it never gets stale. Isn’t that great? The “colors” of this “prism” are endless!
So, let me ask you… how will you be spending your next 30 minutes at that piano or keyboard of yours? When will that be? What will you do today that will make a positive difference for your tomorrow?
PLAY WITH PASSION!