Jazz Piano I

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Technique[edit]

One of the first things a jazz pianist needs is a foundation of good pianistic technique, which is most easily gained by studying classical piano. Learning pieces by composers known for using counterpoint, especially J.S. Bach, can be especially helpful in developing an ear for contrapuntal melodies and hand independence (the ability of both hands to do different things at the same time), which are both critical to the jazz pianist. Several of the technical resources used in jazz piano are classical devices which you can find in the baroque era.

In order to successfully improvise, a correct articulation is necessary. Although this can only be achieved through practice—classical training may help—, the best advice is to "feel" the music you are playing. Technical aspects involved in rhythm, for instance, are likely to be better understood if they are felt and thought rather than just read from sheet music. In jazz, as a rule of thumb, most passages are played with eighth notes, in a more or less "swinging" feel. But to learn rhythm patterns, it is usually better to do it by listening.

A further jazz piano technique is to consider each note as a number or 'degree' of the major scale to which the chord is related. By doing this, you will no longer have difficulty playing in unfamiliary keys because you will be thinking 'numbers' rather than 'note letters'. For example, if your improvised melody goes, against a Cm7 chord (C,Eb, G, Bb): G, G, Eb, A, D, D, Bb, F... you can consider these as note values against the C root, giving: 5, 5, m3, 6, 9, 9, d7, 4. Remembering this sequence means that you can simply transpose this idea into any other key, let's say F: C, C, Ab, D, G, G, Eb, Bb.

In addition to this note value concept, each note value itself has a particular 'feeling'. A 9th sounds 'longing', a 6th sounds 'soft' and easy on the ear. Knowing the note values' feelings enables you to play Purposeful improvisations in any key.

Jazz piano technique should not deter the aspiring jazz pianist. Understandably, listening to recordings of Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans is enough to make anyone give up jazz piano, but it need not be that way. Their technique came to them in the same way it should come to you: practising and listening and emulating and creating anew. At the end of the day, with a steady accumulation in your knowledge and ability to play in all 12 keys: major scales, minor scales, blues scales, major/minor chords and these with dominant and major 7ths, is all you need to really get going in jazz. The rest will come from within.

Listening[edit]

By collecting a library of good jazz recordings and listening regularly, you'll be able to determine which pianists you might like to emulate, familiarize yourself with the myriad sounds that constitute "jazz", and develop an ear for the common forms jazz tunes tend to follow (AABA, for instance). This will also give you an idea of which tunes you would like to learn first. There are numerous great pianists that you will discover in time, but the (almost) undisputed first six on your list should be Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Red Garland and McCoy Tyner.

The verb 'to listen' is very different to the verb 'to hear'; you must execute the former. To listen to jazz is to internalise jazz; to hear jazz is to ignore jazz. When listening, pay close attention to chord types, bass lines, how the melody makes you feel and how the swing, if it's a fast enough piece, really gets to you. Without an awareness of such things, jazz will be lost on you.

Listening may also involve sitting down and copying what you hear. Whilst it is not advised (by Oscar Peterson no less) to listen just to copy note-for-note an entire recording, doing so to copy and then study and then personalise your favourite licks (melodic phrases) from a jazz recording is more than encouraged because it opens up the piano in ways you never thought possible, as well as providing you with a heavier 'bag of licks' and more opportunities for your fingers to develop dexterity. You also learn about note/chord connections which were originally unknown to you.

Listen to jazz as much as much as possible. There can be no finer advice to the aspiring jazz pianist.

Learning Tunes[edit]

Before learning a lot of complex scales or chord voicings, it is essential to learn some of the more common tunes jazz players play. Here are some examples of tunes you'll want to learn:

  • Autumn Leaves
  • All the Things You Are
  • Beautiful Love
  • Body and Soul
  • But Beautiful
  • Cherokee
  • Darn That Dream
  • Fly Me to the Moon
  • Girl from Ipanema
  • I Hear a Rhapsody
  • My Funny Valentine
  • Round Midnight
  • There Will Never Be Another You

Resist the urge to read tunes out of the book and memorize them as soon as possible. It is better to buy a recording of the tune and learn from the recording. It is critical that you feel relaxed and free to use your ears to explore possibilities in a piece of music, something you'll never accomplish while reading from a page.

Start learning each tune simply; begin by memorizing the melody and also the lyrics, if there are any. One good way to learn a melody is to play the bass note of each chord symbol while singing the melody. Later, replace singing the melody with playing it in your right hand, but sing along softly or silently in your head. To ensure you really know the melody, try transposing it into two or three other randomly chosen keys.

Next, fill in the space between the bass notes and the melody with the inner chordal material indicated by the chord symbols from the book.

In addition, it is very important to be aware of chord sequences in jazz tunes. It's fair to say that over 75-80% of them contain incredibly similar chord sequences, albeit in a different key. The most common chord progression is II-V-I. This is commonly extended by being VI-II-V-I and this itself can oftimes be extended by being III-VI-II-V-I.

The use of Roman Numerals is very commonplace in jazz so familiarise yourself with RN 1-7 immediately. 7, because that is the highest major scale degree. The RN values in the progressions above (and any other jazz progression) are numbered from the root, I (one). In the key of C, the longest progression would be: E, A, D, G, C, with C being the I and E being the III, from the major scale of the root, C.

This does become a little more complex because the first question is, "What type of chord do I play for each scale degree?" Simply remember this before going to study in detail about 'Modal Theory': I: Major 7, II: m7, III: m7, 4: Major 7, 5: dominant 7, 6: m7, 7: half-diminshed (root, minor, flat 5, dominant 7th, not 6th which is a full diminished or put another way, a full set of minor 3rds).

Once you are familiar with modal theory and have practised and mastered the II-VI-II-V-I chord progressions in every key (give yourself a month, max), you will be ready to rapidly internalise the vast majority of jazz tunes.

Blues Scale[edit]

Ascending:

C Eb F F# G Bb C

Play these as eighth notes with a slight swing.

I would like to state that the displayed scale is a blues scale rather than a "jazz scale". There is no one scale which can be called the "jazz scale". Jazz music uses many many scales, which belong to the various groups of modes.

It's a minor C blues scale used when playing a blues in C (major). The same scale can be used as the equivalent major scale, that is in this case, Eb. Try to take the Eb chord with your left hand and play (or try improvising in) the above scale. The bass note is now of course the second one - Eb. You will see that this major-6 scale is a very good jazz scale and probably more useful than the C minor in most jazz tunes. The same scale in C would look like this: C D Eb E G A C

Adding an Ab to the C6 scale gives you another blue note between the 5-6 (G-A). These scales in theoretical terminology are known as the pentatonic scales. Many improvisations made by some pianists give this pentatonic feeling as the key to improvisation. Something else to consider is that parts of chromatic scales are often used when improvising as well.

Using Appoggiaturas and Other Melodic Phrases[edit]

In music, an appoggiatura is a note that is played quickly and chromatically, for example in the C major scale a pianist could play C, D, D# E, where D# becomes the appoggiatura and is played right before E. In most blues piano improvisations there is a famous melodic phrase, used before the fifth chord on a chord progression is played, called the Huey "Piano" Smith turnaround, named after the pianist who invented it in New Orleans. Most of the music containing good improvisational phrases and piano soloing also comes from this city. This turnaround in a C Major scale would contain an appoggiatura, thus the following notes are played with right hand: C D# (E and G simultaneously) C (F and A as an interval); C, D# (E and G simultaneously once more) A (crossing index over thumb, which falls naturally into G and then G is played) More concisely, the turnaround repeats the first interval with the appoggiatura and notes F and A are played with fingers 4 and 5 respectively. Another interesting phrase used in piano for jazz or blues which uses the black keys to form a quick blues (pentatonic) scale can be heard in the song "Big Chief" by Professor Longhair.