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I have been learning jazz piano (mainly solo) for a few months and am trying to incorporate more color and more interesting voicings in my chords. However, I find it very difficult to keep the voicings I use for every single chord in a tune in my head.

Should I be annotating my lead sheets with the voicings, or even writing full sheet music for every tune I learn? Or am I supposed to be figuring out the voicings on the spot, possibly playing different ones every time I play the tune? Is writing down a full arrangement (except for the sections I'm supposed to improvise over, of course) against the spirit of jazz? Will it do more harm than good in the long term?

Out of curiosity, how does your answer change if you consider

  1. Someone playing as a hobby, not looking to become a professional?
  2. Someone looking to join jam sessions or play in a band?
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    Good answers all, I would like to add one comment regarding your second paragraph, in particular: “Or am I supposed to be figuring out the voicings on the spot.” Early on, jazz pianists learn some basic blueprints for playing all types of chords and progressions whether they be 2 handed chords with or without roots or one handed chords for comping behind their own solos. My point is playing a voicing to say, Abm9 shouldn’t require any figuring out in the moment (let’s see, Ab, Cb, Eb, Gb, Bb), it should be automatic from seeing the chord symbol to playing a correct voicing for it on the fly. – John Belzaguy Mar 11 at 6:23
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A relevant story

I was in a lesson once with Arturo O'Farrill, a brilliant jazz pianist. He asked me to play a ballad, and when I was finished, he said something like "for that song, you can take it further by doing this sort of thing." He proceeded to play the same song using ridiculously cool chord substitutions. My mind was blown, and I assumed he came up with all of this on the fly.

When I got home that day, I looked up his albums and found a solo arrangement of that same tune. The recording was a few years old, but when I listened to it, I heard him play the exact same crazy voicings and reharms from our lesson.

Arturo wasn't being inauthentic in any way at all--he never claimed to create the arrangement on the fly. I just had been carrying the same misconception you possess: that everything in jazz is spontaneous.

The jazz piano "greats" all planned out their solo arrangements

With solo piano, it's extremely common among highly talented jazz pianists to work out full arrangements in detail. This entails planning out which voicings to use, which reharmonizations to deploy, the moment when a walking bassline should begin, where to place rootless chords, etc. If you need to write out the arrangement to remember it all, then this is fine. However, that's probably an indication that you need to spend more time practicing those piano voicings in all 12 keys.

As you work through more and more songs in this fashion (planning an arrangement for the entire melody), your solo piano chops will improve, and your playing will become more fluid. You'll find that, when you arrive at a dominant 7th chord with the 13th in the melody, you have a few different tricks up your sleeve that you could deploy.

This applies mostly to the chords and arrangement of the melody. Even in solo jazz piano, it's not very common to plan out full improvisations.

Playing in a group is a totally different beast

In general, practicing your solo chops won't be much help for playing in a group. If you walk into a small combo and start playing Bud Powell voicings (which contain the root) in a lower octave, the bassist will give you a funny look. If you start walking a bassline with your left hand, you'll get more than just looks. Moreover, when playing in a group, it's far less common for a jazz pianist to enter a song with a plan for every voicing.

There are good reasons for these differences: in a solo context, the piano is far more constrained because it must fulfill the role of bass, harmony, melody, and beat--all in one. That's why advanced planning is so needed. But in a group context, the pianist only fills the role of harmony (because the bassist provides the bass, the horn provides the melody, and the drummer provides the beat). That frees up pianist to be more creative and responsive. And in general, there is a greater expectation in a group setting that the pianist will listen to the rest of the band and respond/adapt accordingly.

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    Agreed 100%, another example is Bill Evans playing Beautiful Love on Explorations, the extended album version has a version of the tune that didn't make it to the final cut. You can listen to both and hear that Bill has worked out broadly what he's going to play, but the two versions are different enough that he is leaving space for himself to explore. The possibilities are endless for a jazz musician, and we are rarely playing everything 100% new each time, but hopefully with practice we can give ourself a few avenues through any chord sequence we see. cont... – OwenM Mar 11 at 0:26
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    The more ways we can collect avenues through the more common chord sequences we may see, the more 'vocabulary' we have. But attaining that vocabulary often requires a fair bit of work, deciding how we will approach a particular piece and finding great voicings with which to do so. Sometimes that includes writing out exactly how to play a peice chord by chord, then going back and working out another way. In time these various different ways start to melt into each other and free choice, moment by moment, takes over. When we get bored of what we are playing we can go back and add more! – OwenM Mar 11 at 0:31
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    Excellent answer but regarding your last section it would be good to also point out that in a piano trio (piano, bass, drums) which is also a group context the pianist has the double responsibility of handling melody and harmony simultaneously. This usually means that the heads (melody choruses) are at least partially thought out and arranged. – John Belzaguy Mar 11 at 6:09
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    @JohnBelzaguy, very good points! For many piano trios (e.g., Oscar Peterson trio, Bill Evans), there's a ton of arranging for the head. For others (e.g., Keith Jarrett trio), there tends to be less of that. – jdjazz Mar 11 at 12:54
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    I totally agree. In the case of Bill Evans his arrangements would even partially extend into the solo sections in the form of his love of re-harmonizing tunes. The chords he came up with would then be used as the basis for improvising by himself and the bassist. He is not unique in this regard, many groups come up with their own chord substitutions for the standard harmony of a tune in spots. – John Belzaguy Mar 11 at 16:24
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Playing purely by yourself, you can do whatever you need to do. If it helps to transcribe, then read, so be it. Eventually with most pieces, you'll remember most of what goes on. But - in the spirit of jazz, that may mean you play a piece exactly the same every time. Some jazz can be, and is, like that, but listeners like to also hear developments further, and you may find that this method precludes that happening.

Playing with others: it will depend who and what. With another chordal instrument, (guitar, probably), it's important that both of you know what's happening. Some chord voicings or changes may clash - not good. Playing with solo instruments, it's important for them to know what the harmonies will be. They use those harmonies to build their melodies. If you only add a 9th or so here and there, no problem, but using a tts instead of a V, or changing V7 into V7♯5♭9 may confuse them if they're not warned.

It will do no harm to anyone to prepare lead sheets, at least then, each player will have the piece mapped out, with more chance of everyone being ensemble, and no-one getting hurt !

Jam sessions - try not to stray too far from the originals, as others playing with you will expect that rather than a changed version.

Playing in a band - often a rehearsal will sort out what gets played, and the chart for each player will keep it straightforward.

Returning to your solo playing - there's nothing wrong with changing voicings on the fly, since it's only you. And that is worth proceeding with, as new harmonies/voicings will give you inspiration, which is getting into the real 'spirit of jazz'.

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There's a paradox here. When composing, you're free as air. Write what you want - the obvious, the unexpected, the completely-off-the-wall...

When improvising in a jazz group, stick to the agreed rules. Don't play like Chick Corea (RIP) in a Dixieland band. And 'free-form' is over-rated!

But you're talking about solo playing. And you're talking like there's some moral issue over the difference between composing/arranging (more arranging in this case, I think) and improvising. There isn't.

Hobby/professional distinction? Well, if you hope to get paid, it's a good idea to keep your music accessible, and not to make too many of your mistakes in public.

Solo/in a band? Again, deliver the goods. If this means preparation, fine.

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"Figuring out voicing on the spot" can lead to freezing up. I like Laurence's answer and his comments about "paradox".

There is another paradox in music, specifically improv, more specifically Jazz. Namely that one should not have a preconceived notion of what they are going to play and not to play written solos. Now you could think of the entire piece as a solo if every player is arranging on the fly and that makes it fun. But the fact is that improv is "variation on a theme" and the only way to get really great at choosing chord voicings, substitutions and extensions on the fly is to spend time woodshedding your own arrangements and those of other players. It needs to be in the muscle memory.

I am not a big fan of lead sheets as they already contain errors, poor decisions, and a lack of info. If you want to really learn a tune my recommendation is to make a mixed tape (oh crap am I old) with a dozen versions of the tune in several styles and listen to it for a month. Then let the ideas that seeped into your subconscious come out as you play around with the tune. If you have an arrangement with chord voicings you think are really cool I would recommend making your own lead sheet, either a xerox copy (oh boy there I go again) or use MuseScore or some other s/w to write your own lead sheet with as much notation as you want. That way you preserve the integrity of the original, for what it's worth.

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