If you are just beginning to learn jazz piano chords and have a decent familiarization with 7th chords, it will likely serve you well to begin harmonizing some of those tunes you are familiar with in a fashion that is both easy and conducive to getting a decent sound out of those keys.
Here is one such way to begin your venture with jazz piano chords:
1) Identify the 3 and 7 of each of these chords
2) Harmonize the melody with just that 3 and 7 with your right hand while playing the root of the chord with your left hand
Let’s say, for example that you are harmonizing Richard Rogers’
My Romance (lyrics were written by Lorenz Hart) in the key of C. After the pickup notes, the melody note is a G and the chord in that first measure is a Cmaj7. Here is the basic construction of the chord:
C E G B
1 3 5 7
The C is the root, so you can play this note in the bass area with your left hand.
Notice that the melody note is the G, which is the 5th of the chord. Below this melody note, play the 3 and 7 with your right hand as well. So, you are playing (in this order) B, E, and G, the 7, 3, 5 respectively (we are not concerned with including that 5th unless we are playing a form of a diminished chord). By doing this, you are playing the minimum chord tones necessary to complete the functionality of the chord. However, what you are also achieving here is a nice thin sound. This is an excellent cocktail piano approach when playing those ballads, though it is certainly not limited to slow tunes.
Play through an entire tune using this strategy. Remember, the 3 and 7 of the chord are always included. Now, in many cases, that melody note will be either the 3 or the 7. This means that you can simply add the one missing below that melody note while playing that root with the left hand. An example would be the first measure of Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) in the key of Ab. That first melody note in the first measure is an Ab and the chord is Fmin7. Notice that the Ab is the 3rd of the chord. Therefore, simply play the 7th (Eb) below that Ab while playing the root (F) with the left hand. This tune is excellent for this since you’ll see that there are many melody notes that will be harmonized in this manner.
By taking on this strategy, you are not only obtaining a good sound that works, but you are also confirming your understanding of the important notes of these chords. Thus, you are setting up a nice foundation to make more of these chords later, since you can add extensions, like 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc.
Do this with several tunes in your repertoire and you’ll begin to see and hear the benefits for yourself! As you become more and more confident with this very important and effective first step toward gaining a more thorough understanding of jazz piano chords, remember…
PLAY WITH PASSION!