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I'm learning about playing from a fake book on piano. A lot of the stuff I've read emphasizes voice leading and picking inversions so that your chords don't jump around too much (for example, a C triad in root position followed by a G in first inversion.) However a lot of pieces use slash chords which explicitly state a root note or chords like a C6 which imply a C in the root since any inversion would become an Am7. Does this mean the chords that do not specify a root need to have the root in the bass, or am I free to chose whatever inversion I want for those?

For example, this piece has both chords that specify a root and those that don't: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pinterest.com%2Fpin%2F543176405053551459%2F&psig=AOvVaw2gjwMr4zj6YXncwhvBYyy8&ust=1654108987453000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAwQjRxqFwoTCLjP76WyivgCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAR

4 Answers 4

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It depends on what you are trying to do.

If you're playing jazz from a fake book then you're free to do whatever you want with the music, the printed chords are only a recommendation (although for some standards particular voicings are part of the recognizable sound of the song). If you have a bass player, they are going to take care of the root notes. Otherwise it's up to you to decide whether it's important to make the roots clear. If you are trying to pick chord inversions to keep the hand in one place then it's obviously going be to more difficult.

If you are playing the melody with harmonies in the right hand and a bass line and/or accompaniment in the left then you have more possibilities to get the roots right.

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  • Also, slash chords, or chords with specified bottom note, are highly-recommended voicings... you can play whatever you want, but for many jazz standards (etc.) part of the recognizable sound involves choice of voicings at critical junctures. May 31, 2022 at 21:26
  • @paulgarrett I agree, and I've added those points to the answer.
    – PiedPiper
    May 31, 2022 at 21:46
  • @paulgarrett Out of curiosity, could you give some examples where a particular voicing is expected?
    – Javier
    Jun 1, 2022 at 14:49
  • @Javier, ah, it happens so often that nothing springs to mind. I do recall in some Rogers-and-Hart tunes, and some Beatles tunes, that just "doing the usual" with the chord symbol missed the iconic sound. That is, when I initially ignored the slash chord or bass indication, it didn't sound bad, but it didn't sound like the original, at all. (This on piano...) The effect may be stronger in tunes that are not really so pianistic... but some Brahms, and some stride piano, have a similar feature. Jun 1, 2022 at 23:58
  • Just a clarification, "slash chords" may be a recommended voicing, i.e. a chord inversion, normally to provide voice leading for the the bass. But they may also be an essential part of a harmony which would be altogether different without the bass indication. A relatively recurrent example is the so called IV/V chord, e.g. F/G in the tonality of C. F/G is a G dominant chord (with the 3rd and the 5th degrees omitted) that resolves into the chord of C. If you remove the G from the bass, you get an F chord, with an altogether different harmonic function. Jun 7, 2022 at 20:26
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I'm learning about playing from a fake book on piano.

A jazz player with a lot of experience can improvise accompaniment. They might read a lead sheet and use it as just rough guide.

If you can't do that, if your just learning about jazz harmony and accompaniment, I would think you want to stick to the lead sheet and develop an understanding of how whoever wrote the lead sheet handled the harmony. But keep in mind, just about every different lead sheet you find of jazz tunes will have different harmonizations.

Sticking to the lead sheet shouldn't be misunderstood as "there is only one way to play the song." It really means get several lead sheets and stick to them to learn about jazz harmony.

...However a lot of pieces use slash chords which explicitly state a root note... Does this mean the chords that do not specify a root need to have the root in the bass...

To read the lead sheet properly the chords are given in root position unless there is a slash, in which case the slash determines the bass tone, technically not the chord root.

A good lead sheet will use slashes when particular bass lines are important to the song or a particular harmonization of a song.

Again, if you're learning, I think you want to embrace playing slash chords and the particular bass lines they create according to the lead sheet, to develop an understanding of how important a melodic bass line can be in harmonization.

...A lot of the stuff I've read emphasizes voice leading and picking inversions so that your chords don't jump around too much...

Yes, but on solo piano I think you want to distinguish between the bass line which will be given by chord symbols and slash notation and the rest of the voicing of the chord played above that bass.

The bass may move by a lot of jumps of fourths and fifths, other times the bass will move by steps. While the bass may have lots of jumps, the voicing of the rest of the chord above the bass will often move with all smooth step-wise voice leading, or at least move by the smallest distance. The details will depend on the accompaniment pattern. You might do something like this...

enter image description here

...where the bass is leaping as given in the chord symbols moving by all roots, but the upper voices of the chord move by smooth steps. That very typical of smooth voice leading: leaps in the bass and smooth steps in the upper voices.

If the lead sheet has slash chords, the bass won't leap, and so all of the voices could get a smooth step-wise treatment, like this...

enter image description here

I think you should also keep in mind that the left hand accompaniment doesn't always need to have the chord symbol completely voiced if the melody proper contributes some of the chord tones. Using the same basic pattern as above, but with a bit of rhythmic variation, you might have something like this...

enter image description here

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  • Ah, yes, among other effects that sort of jumping bass emulates an oom-pah effect from the low brass in a marching band, etc. Also for folk-dance music like polkas. For me, it often makes more sense to think of a measure (for example) as a slow arpeggio in the bass, slow enough to fit a dance rhythm. Jun 2, 2022 at 21:39
  • If you don't just bang on the notes, you can play those patterns subtly. Think of stuff like Chopin mazurkas. Arpeggiating the upper notes is another way to soften it. There are lots of figuration options. The point was to illustrate bass, slash chords notation, and voice leading. Jun 3, 2022 at 12:43
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When a 'slash bass' is not written, root position is assumed.

If you're playing solo piano, be guided (if not completely controlled - after all, this IS jazz!) by the notated inversions. In a tune in C major, C (bass note C) has a quite different flavour to C/E (bass note E). And F is a quite different chord to F/G - those slash notes can indicate more than just a simple inversion.

Remember, this is all about the BASS note. Maybe you're playing it with your left hand, maybe there's a bass player in which case he takes responsibility for the basic inversion (and you keep out of his way!) It's got nothing to do with whether you choose a close or open voicing in the upper (probably right hand) structure.

Follow the notation, obey the notation, hear how a specified bass note affects the harmony. Then, if you like, play something else if you think it sounds better. Like I said, this IS jazz :-)

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Bass handles roots. If you’re playing alone then while you can imply harmony you may also want to occasionally reference chord roots to help the listener

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