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Got two questions about this.

  1. When playing jazz from real books, how often should I add extensions and colour tones to the chords? Should I do it most of the time?

  2. When a chord has extensions written on it, is it important to play that exact extension? Is the specific extension written on specific chords as its seen as paramount for the song?

Edit. Talking about when im playing solo. Also I play in this 60s kinda jazz, Bill Evans type.

And yes I know there's no "right"answer, but im talking about what I should do. and what experienced jazz pianists do.

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  • You can do anything you want when you play jazz. When to play extensions is a matter of opinion.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 12:29
  • It will depend also on whether you play alone, or ensemble. There is no concrete answer to this - any answer will be purely opinion.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 13:57
  • @PiedPiper That's really the right answer; IMO it should be expanded into one. I don't see this so much as an "subjective question" that should be closed; rather, the objective answer is that practice will vary freely. Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 14:19

2 Answers 2

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I will address each question individually even though they are somewhat linked. The answer to question 1 is: There is no formula for this, it is up to the individual player. That being said, from my experience, jazz players add extensions to chords all the time. There are a few reasons for this. First, charts in the Real Book or any other fake book for that matter are not the definitive versions of these songs. For every standard there are probably at least 2 or 3 alternate ways that the chords are played. Secondly, the chords are sometimes simplified to a degree to have a universal generic version of the song. From there players expand on them using their ears and experience. This includes selecting extensions that work well with the melody and the tonality of the song.

As for question 2, the extensions shown in the book generally work well. You can use them or not, or add to them with others that maintain the flavor of what is happening, for example, on a dominant chord 9 usually works with 13, b9 or #9 with b13, etc. Avoid say, changing a 13 to a b13 because if the chord says 13 the 13 probably works with the melody and is a better fit.

Here is an example of a few bars of Alice in Wonderland with some typical extensions in red that I have used and heard others use. This is not etched in stone by any means, only an example of an alternate approach:

enter image description here

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John Belzaguy's answer is great but I love this topic so thought I'd add my own 2c.

To Q1 the answer is of course context dependant but leaning towards probably yes, almost all the time.

If you are playing traditional jazz (ie. Dixieland, Ragtime) of some form then you're more likely expected to stick to triads with occasional additions of 7th's, usually on the dominant chords.

Bebop is it's own thing and playing it authentically is outside the scope of this answer, but it's not quite 'extend everything when you want', although judicious extension can be used at times.

When playing the sort of 'central' form of jazz that currently forms the basis of most academic instruction (loosely 60's, inclusive of post-bop, also including modal understanding, though not usually modal quartal harmony) then yes, exploring all the possible extensions for any given change and playing with them is expected, it's 'what it's about' harmonically. The extensions you choose can come from the diatonic scale of the key you are currently in, or you can alter these extensions as much as you wish. When starting out you may try a non diatonic alteration and it sound very odd and out of place, but you will also find some that sound great. Exploring this and finding your own sounds, finding ways of making non-diatonic extension choices go from sounding out of place to sounding very cool, is the whole game.

With Q2 Ideally a written extension acts as a guide that suggests how the harmony of that set of changes is meant to work, so it should be given consideration. It will often be because the written melody hits that note, or it implies a harmony that includes that note. Certain extension notes can subtly prepare a key change, or wether a dominant chord is considered altered vs diminished etc. This stuff takes time to learn. That said, when the melody is no longer there, in the solos, bending and stretching this harmony is what keeps jazz interesting so you should allow yourself to leave the written extensions whenever you think you have found another interesting way around the sequence.

The realbooks, especially the older ones, only outline the changes in their most basic form and they really shouldn't be taken as gospel. The later realbooks took time to analyse the music a bit more and suggest some more complex extensions based on existing recorded performances etc, so they can give some great insight but they are still fully open to alteration. The written alterations often support what the melody is doing in the head, and enthusiastic alternative alterations will clash badly.

The realbooks give a general framework with which to navigate a song, but the well known jazz ensembles would have usually rehearsed and refined a piece way further. This can include playing a sequence of changes one way for the head and different for the solos. Some of the very specific realbooks, ie. the Charles Mingus or Bill Evans realbooks/fakebooks are very thorough transcriptions of what those specific ensembles did. In those cases there's LOADS to learn by analysing what extensions are used, but even more to learn by hearing how they deviate once the solos start happening. Responding to how your bandmates have extended a particular set of changes in realtime is a very tricky skill, but fundamental to jazz, and you only develop it by playing around yourself extending EVERYTHING and learning the playing field!

It's a very large topic though, I've generalised very heavily.

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    Thanks for the compliment and very nice job crafting an answer with a lot of relevant information and detail to this question. Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 7:33

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