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How do you create solo piano arrangements from a fake book?

Today's jazz pianists learn to play within many different contexts. They might find themselves in a big band, a combo, or by themselves as keyboard soloists. As soloists, they must supply the harmony, rhythm, and melody while only being given a lead sheet version of a song as a guide. At the professional level, this skill can be quite complex. However, the basic components can be easily learned by intermediate or higher level players. The following is a sequential approach to creating a solo piano arrangement of a composition taken from a lead sheet (a notated melody with chord symbols).

Since the third and seventh are the most important tones in a seventh chord (perhaps with the exception of the root, although when sounded together, the third and seventh can imply the root without it actually sounding or being present), these tones should not normally be omitted. By using only these two tones combined with the bass and melody of a jazz composition, one can learn a basic approach to playing from a lead sheet. Usually the page only contains the melody and chord symbols (see Example 1).

Example 1

Example 2 below demonstrates the basic components needed to create a solo piano arrangement taken from Example 1. It features: 1. the melody in the top staff 2. the third and seventh of the relevant chord in the middle staff 3. a bass line that uses the root and fifth of the relevant chord on beats one and three respectively to establish a rhythmic feeling of two beats to the bar.

Example 2

The top and middle staves should be played with the right hand, and the bottom staff with the left hand. You would mostly use the right hand thumb and second finger to play the third and seventh (chord voicing), while fingers three, four, and five would be available to play the melody. The fingering in Example 2 is typical of how one can get all the components of a tune happening by supplying bass in the left hand with chords and melody in the right hand. Notice that each seventh chord is complete in each measure since the bass accounts for the root and fifth while the third and seventh are supplied in the middle range. It is best to first learn the arrangement within the simplest rhythmic context (such as the quarter, half, and whole notes in Example 2) with a minimum of syncopation. Once comfortable, one can comp the middle staff chord voicings and move a few melody notes to the off-beat eighth note position to help establish a swing feel. Then you might create more melodic bass lines by playing quarter notes and changing the rhythmic feel to four beats to the bar. Example 3 employs all of these concepts.

Example 3

It is best to begin with jazz standards that have simple, straightforward melodies such as A Foggy Day, All The Things You Are, or Autumn Leaves. Perhaps the first two or three tunes could be written out to clearly articulate how the process works in the most concrete manner. Then the process can be continued by working out the same elements in your head. Eventually you get to a point where you can sight-read lead sheets creating this kind of arrangement making you marketable in the professional world if you own some fake books (books full of lead sheet versions of popular songs) either in hard copy or digital format.

Example 4

When a jazz melody is more complicated and/or busy, it becomes more difficult to play the melody and chord all in the right hand. Then it becomes necessary to split up the chord between the hands and perhaps sacrifice the consistency of the bass line.

Bebop melodies that are angular and fast (such as Example 4) can be realized with the following method. The left hand can account for the root and seventh or root and third. Then the right hand thumb would complete the chord by adding the missing third or seventh leaving all other fingers free to play the melody. Example 5 shows how the left hand provides a solid chord foundation for the melody.

Example 5

The thumb note of the right hand isn't even necessary, but it often helps give the texture a more robust body. Example 6 below shows how you can then incorporate the same rhythmic changes as those found in Example 3 to comp the harmonies. 

Example 6

Some advanced jazz players (such as Art Tatum or Dave McKenna) can even keep a consistent bass line going while dividing this kind of harmonic texture between the hands. Pianists who have hands large enough to play chords with a root, seventh, and third can play all the chord tones with the left hand, thus making it easier for the right hand to play angular, fast melodies. Notice that the boundary between the bottom note and the top note of each chord is either a seventh or a tenth.

Developing expertise with both of these solo jazz piano textures makes it possible to take any lead sheet version of a song and make it happen. As with any style of jazz playing, it is a good idea to click a metronome on beats two and four (in 4/4 time) or beat two (in 3/4 time) to be sure you are also developing a good time feel. One potential weakness of playing solo jazz piano is that you might not be forming good habits with regard to steady, consistent time. By sometimes using a time-keeping device, you can keep that aspect in check.

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