In the “good old days” of jazz, pianists played whatever chord voicings they liked. And there was lots of variety from one pianist to another. So much variety, in fact, that you can tell the difference between Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum largely from what kinds of voicings they play. Same with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, for that matter.
Chord voicings contribute a great deal to a jazz pianist’s unique “sound.”
The same thing is true today, of course, but since the rise of “jazz method books” beginning in the 1960s, there’s a false notion among many jazz piano students that there are a set of “correct” chord voicings that everyone has to play.
I used to feel this way too, and I felt a little bit “guilty,” for instance, when I’d put the root in one chord of a series of rootless left-hand voicings. “After all, that’s not in any of the method books I’ve read.”
Then, one fine day, I opened a book of Herbie Hancock transcriptions and saw that Herbie liked to do the same thing I did. In fact, he used the exact same voicing that I liked to use: F G A C for an Fmaj7 chord. For one thing, it firmly establishes the tonic key which I like to do at the beginning of a tune. And also, it sounds good!
I was reminded of this during a Skype lesson I was teaching earlier today. I was showing my student, a young professional jazz pianist who lives in India, how to explore chord voicings and discover fresh, new voicings for herself. She was enjoying the process of trying out different voicings, but related how another jazz pianist once told her that she needed to play the “correct” voicings on a certain tune. She asked for my advice on this.
After pondering this for a moment, I advised her to reply to remarks like this with:
“Oh, that’s just something I heard Herbie Hancock play.”
For one thing, it’s probably true. And for another, her chord voicings are sounding so good that yes, they are “correct.” Very correct and very individual.
So if anybody ever tells you that you can’t play a jazz chord voicing that you think sounds good, simply reply, “Oh, that’s just something I heard Herbie Hancock play” and move on with your life.
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
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