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I am a somewhat beginner jazz piano looking to start reading lots of lead sheets to assimilate tunes. I know the general idea is to sight read the melody and play the chord voicing in left hand (rootless). But I have one question: do you guys memorize chord voicings (rootless) and their inversions for every chord or do you build them on the spot?

I think building them is really hard when I am also trying to voice lead at the same time. Or maybe I'm just too inexperienced or slow?

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    If you start by practicing building them on the fly, you'll find that you've memorized the most popular ones after you've practiced enough. In fact, it's likely that building them on the fly is the best way to memorize them. Plus, practicing building them on the fly helps for when you run into something you've haven't yet memorized - and you'll never memorize everything. – Todd Wilcox Jan 17 '16 at 5:42
  • Assuming rootless 7ths as a basic start, there are only three notes to each chord, and if you leave out the 5th, which is often the case, there's only two notes, giving two inversions. That's not too difficult to memorise. – Tim Jan 17 '16 at 9:18
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There's really not one answer to this as there is a lot that goes in to what you want to do with the pieces you play. If you're trying to play along like or with a recording then yes you'll want to have exact voicings planned out. However this is not the typical case as most of the time you'll want to do what voicings you like.

Remember, Jazz standards are typically the song is a vehicle for self expression and you'll typically a lot of variation from performance to performance. I know as a keyboardist I'll typically listen to the other in the group and adjust my vocings based on who's playing what and who's got the melody or is soloing and if I'm playing alone then I'll typically want the root note of the chord in what I'm playing. A lot of times the chords are relatively simple and performers can reharmonize sections of a piece or just simply add to the extensions based on the melody so this is another thing to keep in mind when playing standards.

Let's take a look at Autumn Leaves as an example. The progression for the song is defined as follows:

Am7 D7  Gmaj7   Cmaj7

F#m7b5  B7  Em

Am7 D7  Gmaj7   Cmaj7

F#m7b5  B7  Em

F#m7b5  B7  Em  

Am7 D7  Gmaj7   

F#m7b5  B7  Em7 A7  Dm7 G7

F#m7b5  B7  Em

As you can see, there's no extended chords and no alterations and the chord progression is pretty basic. There are many, many recordings of this song with different feels and different arrangements. Some you may like more than others, but they all show what's possible just from one progression and melody.

Chet Baker & Paul Desmond

Cannonball Adderley

Nat King Cole

Eric Clapton

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    @e7kim reread the first two paragraphs. Pretty much it depends but for jazz standards that's not what you typically want to do. The rest fleshed it out with the autumn leaves example. – Dom Jan 17 '16 at 5:00
  • If you really read my question, you would know I was asking about playing lead sheets, not playing with recordings, playalongs, or in a performance and that I am in fact am playing alone but I want to play rootless voicings, so half of what you said in your first two paragraphs was not relevant to what I am asking. – e7kim Jan 17 '16 at 16:47
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    @e7kim I know you are looking at lead sheets. Like I said in my answer what voicings are played vary greatly by performance so memorization isn't something you want to do as there's not just one voicing that you will end up playing if you play with others. There will be many. If you really just want to play by yourself then the question you asked is very irrelevant just play whatever voicings you want and you can just play from memory or improvise it. – Dom Jan 17 '16 at 16:54
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    @e7kim - if you intend playing alone, rootless is probably not the way to go. it just won't sound that good. So, we now seem to have some digression within the question. You need to learn the voicings in order to be able to play them. Otherwise how will you know what is entailed? One cannot do this spontaneously. One needs to know what one is doing. When one does, then one can introduce 'spontaneity'. – Tim Jan 17 '16 at 20:24
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If you're playing solo, a strong bass line is much more important than chord fill-ins. If you're in a band, the best thing to do with your left hand is very likely nothing. If LH comping IS appropriate, you MAY develop a "library" of stock chord voicings. But probably you shouldn't!

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