Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 25

Improv: The Jazz Education Section


Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip no. 25 

Creating a Jazz Piano Arrangement – left hand piano voicings: shells and Autumn Leaves


The most straight forward way for a jazz pianist to play is to place the tune or improvised melody in the right hand (upper region) and the chordal accompaniment (harmony) in the left hand (lower – to mid-region of the keyboard). One of the simplest ways of making an accompaniment that functions in a connected way (chord progression) is to use what are often referred to as “shell” voicings. 


A voicing is a particular way of playing a chord  (there are many ways) and shell voicings consist of what looks like the shell of the chord – the root and seventh (with the 3rd and 5th omitted) or the root with the 3rd and omit the 5th and 7th. In this way shell voicings look a bit incomplete but are nevertheless perfectly functional.


Shell voicings can sound brittle and jarring in isolation but when played “under” a melodic part will sound very complementary. They are the basic material of much of the left hand voicing styles of bebop and hard pianists such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Sonny Clark. They are also the left hand building block of bigger chords when additional notes are placed in the right hand to make 2 handed chord voicings.


Here, below, these are illustrated in two versions for the classic song, Autumn Leaves by Johnny Mercer, a song which is played by jazz musicians a lot. 


In version 1 the LH shells are augmented by the melody in a harmonic way. For example the first chord of Cm7 has the root and the seventh. The “missing 3rd” which would be required to identify the chord as truly Cm7 is the long melody note of Eb. The same note then is held over into the F7 shell. Here the shell is root and 3rd and the 7th of the F7 is still the Eb. 


The rest of the song proceeds in a similar way with key melody notes and “incomplete” shell voicings complementing each other.


Of-course not all songs work as “perfectly” as this but many do e.g.: All The Things You Are and Fly Me To The Moon, 2 songs where the melody emphasises the 3rds of the chords.


In version 1 the voicing style starts with a shell of root & 7th  (Cm7) going to a shell of root & 3rd (F7). But in version 2 the shell types are reversed: Cm7 is root & 3rd and goes to F7 which is root and 7th. Harmonically it doesn’t work so well in this instance, but it is worth mastering both versions.