Category Archives: FunJazz Piano Lessons

Tips, ideas, transcriptions, analyses, and in depth study of intriguing jazz topics that will help you walk in the masters’ Footprints and make Giant Steps towards your Freedom Jazz Dance!

arpeggiating altered chords

Piano being a polyphonic instrument, pianists naturally have access to playing several notes on the keyboard at once, which is definitely an advantage when trying to develop harmonic consciousness. Guitarists also have a fretboard suited to playing and hearing both simple and complex chords, and vibraphonists, with two pairs of sticks, are often seen playing four notes at once — a perfect number if you’re focusing on chord tones only! But what about you melodic instrumentalists out there? How does a flute player, a trumpet player, or a double bass player go about hearing a tune’s harmonic framework?

Having taught a few people who play such melodic instruments (as opposed to pianists which typically make up the bulk of my students), I have found that going through a tune arpeggiating its chords is a worthwhile exercise. It gives the player a deeper awareness of the changes, which later enables him or her to be more connected to the tune when improvising (and when playing/embellishing the melody).

Arpeggiating is easily achieved for most chords: play the chord tones first (root, third, fifth, and seventh) then move up to the tensions (ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth). Once you’ve reached the top, just make your way back down from the thirteenth to the root. That works really well for major and minor chords with ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, and also for most dominant chords with tensions. But altered chords (a specific kind of dominant chord) can be a bit of a challenge because of the inner workings of the altered mode: it indeed appears to have two ninths (one flat and one sharp), and can be apprehended as having two fifths as well (a diminished and an augmented fifth). This can all be quite confusing… So let’s try and see through the fog so that you know what to play when you get to those last four bars of the tune Footprints for example¹.

First, it is important to know that the altered chord’s parent mode, the altered mode, comes from the melodic minor scale (also called jazz minor). Play C melodic minor for instance (C melodic minor is equivalent to the C major scale with a minor third instead of a major third). Now play all the same notes as in C melodic minor, but starting and ending on the note B. This is the B altered mode (B C D Eb F G A B), mode VII of melodic minor (the altered chord is thus the VIIth degree of melodic minor). Now, let’s attribute scale degrees (notated using Arabic numerals accompanied by flats and sharps when necessary) to the notes of the B altered mode:

B 1 root
C b9 flat ninth
D #9 sharp ninth
Eb (= D#) 3 major third
F b5 / #11 diminished fifth or sharp eleventh
G #5 / b13 augmented fifth or flat thirteenth
A b7 minor seventh

If you look closely, you might notice that we seemingly have two different kinds of thirds in this mode: a minor third (D), and a major third (Eb or, spelled enharmonically, D#). Theoretically, D natural can also function as a #9 on a chord whose root is B. And since we cannot have two thirds in a given chordmode², scale degrees 3 and #9 can logically be attributed to D# (Eb) and D respectively.

We have now identified three of our chord tones: the root (B), the major third (D#), and the minor seventh (A), which indeed outline a dominant seventh chord in skeletal form. It’s now time to add some flesh to those bare tones! Before moving on to tensions, we have to make a choice for our last chord tone: the fifth. We can either use a diminished fifth (the note F in our example) or an augmented fifth (G).

Altered arpeggio using b5 as a chord tone

If we decide that the b5 will function as the fifth of the altered chord for our purpose of arpeggiating it, we have the notes B, D#, F, and A in the lower part (chord tones) of the arpeggio. The remaining notes of the chordmode are C (b9), D (#9), and G (b13). They form the upper part (tensions) of the arpeggio. And we have:

B D# F A C D G D C A F D# B
1 3 b5 b7 b9 #9 b13 #9 b9 b7 b5 3 1

Notice that the tensions (C, D, and G) form a quartal triad that can be notated C2, D7sus(omit 5), or Gsus depending on its inversion. In this case, there is an absence of eleventh in the chordmode due to the presence of b5.

Altered arpeggio with b5 going through the circle of fifths

Altered arpeggio using #5 as a chord tone

If we decide that the #5 will function as the fifth of the altered chord for our purpose of arpeggiating it, we have the notes B, D#, G, and A in the lower part (chord tones) of the arpeggio. The remaining notes of the chordmode are C (b9), D (#9), and F (#11). They form the upper part (tensions) of the arpeggio. And we now have:

B D# G A C D F D C A G D# B
1 3 #5 b7 b9 #9 #11 #9 b9 b7 #5 3 1

The tensions (C, D, and F) do not form any specific tertial nor quartal triad here, and in this second scenario, there is an absence of thirteenth in the chordmode due to the presence of #5.

Altered arpeggio with #5 going through the circle of fifths

So there you have it: two different ways of arpeggiating altered chords in full (i.e. entire chordmodes with four chord tones and three tensions). Don’t forget to practice both examples a) and b) in all twelve keys! As always, I recommend following cycle five root motion, starting at different points in the cycle every time you pick up your instrument to practice (I’ve started with the B7alt chord in the audio examples above since this is the one we’ve been concerned with throughout the article).

Notes

¹ The chords in this four bar progression are F#mi7(b5), F7(#11), E7alt, A7alt resolving to Cmi7. Listen to Wayne Shorter’s version on Adam’s Apple.

² A chordmode is an indivisible entity that arises when a given chord sounds in unity with the scale from which it derives. “The complete sound of a chord is its corresponding mode within its parent scale.” (Russell 2001)

References

Russell, George. “Part One: The Theoretical Foundation of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” In Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization – Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity, 1-53. Brookline: Concept Publishing Company, 2001.

Shorter, Wayne. Adam’s Apple. Blue Note 7464032. 1987 (originally released in 1966).


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areas of study within jazz piano

The 6 areas of study within jazz piano.

“Feel, form, rhythm,” “arranging,” and “technique” are what I call the three foundational blocks of jazz piano playing. Without them, you won’t be able to build anything musically solid because your playing will always lack rootedness, depth, and precision. To improve in the area of “feel, form, and rhythm,” I recommend immersing yourself in some kind of West African musical tradition (Ewe drumming and dance, or djembe and dundun rhythms for example). “Arranging” is about mastering different textures and telling an engaging story. The piano has an inherent orchestral quality due to its wide range and polyphonic nature, so there is a lot to cover here, from bass lines, to chord voicings, all the way up to how to interpret and embellish a melody. As far as “technique” is concerned, some sub-areas are specific to jazz (such as a practicing a snippet of music in a variety of keys) and others more particular to classical performance. This is why I often encourage my students to work on Hanon’s Virtuoso Pianist, and the Bach Chorales¹ and Inventions at the very least (taking separate classical piano lessons altogether, in addition to the jazz piano lessons, being the ideal scenario).

These first three foundational blocks support those that make up the second level in the diagram. “Improvisation,” in my opinion, is the heartbeat of jazz. It’s at the very core of the music, which itself is all about individuation (or “finding your own voice“) if you ask me. At its left, you’ll notice that I represented “listening/transcribing” as an arrow pointing towards “improvisation.” That is because the jazz language you will be exposed to, and eventually internalize, will unavoidably feed into your personal style as an improviser². The elements of tradition and innovation constantly and dynamically coexist in jazz, very much like the yin and yang components of Taoist philosophy.

Finally, all five aforementioned blocks support the final block at the top of the diagram: “building a repertoire.” Now the good news is, this task should be relatively effortless if you’ve studied all the other areas conscientiously… This culminating block is all about having fun learning the tunes you like, or, why not, even writing, practicing, and performing your own!

Notes

¹ In “Back to Bach: Keys to Jazz Piano Prowess,” pianist Fred Hersch (2012) also recommends working on the Chorales, and offers a step by step approach to studying them involving pairs of two voices, then groups of three, and finally all four.

² See Wernick & O’Donnell (2010).

References

Hersch, Fred. “Back to Bach: Keys to Jazz Piano Prowess.” Downbeat: 76-77, September 2012.

“The Four-Part Chorales of J.S. Bach.” bach-chorales.com. <https://www.bach-chorales.com/> accessed 10 March 2021.

Wernick, Forrest and O’Donnell, Eric. “The Importance of Language.” Jazzadvice. 2010. <https://www.jazzadvice.com/the-importance-of-language/> accessed 10 March 2021.


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cycle 5 root motion: an application of the circle of fifths

As most of us musicians and music students know, the circle of fifths is notably helpful when figuring out what key a piece of music is in looking at its key signature. But it also has practical uses and can indeed be seen as the theoretical framework for what is commonly referred to as cycle 5 root motion. Cycle 5 root motion is often used as a way of traveling through all 12 pitches of the keyboard in order to work on anything, from a snippet of music to a whole tune, in all 12 keys. It also underpins the concept of the widely used II-V-I progression.

To go through the cycle, simply begin on any given note, go down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth (for a comprehensive review of intervals, click here) to reach the second note. Once there, repeat the process: go down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth and reach the third note. Repeat again, and again, and again… Until you are back at your starting point and have completed the cycle!

Cycle 5 root motion: the complete circle of fifths played in the left hand on the piano, starting and ending on the note C.

Oftentimes, you’ll see the circle of fifths starting and finishing on the pitch C (as in the example above). But you can of course begin and end at any point in the cycle. Actually, I recommend starting at different points in the cycle every time you practice something in all 12 keys: repeated transposition can indeed be quite challenging and mentally exhausting, and more than once have I stopped half or a third of the way through the cycle, and forgotten where I left off the next day… So beginning on different pitches every time makes it more likely that you will eventually get through the whole cycle, or at least that you’ll cover some of the more unfamiliar keys!

When you start and end on C, unfamiliar keys (such as Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B…) are located towards “the middle” of the cycle, whereas the more familiar ones (fewer flats or sharps) are on “the edges.” Beginning the cycle on say the pitch Ab is a way to ensure that you’ll venture through unfamiliar territory during practice!


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5-note 2-hand voicings: example of a minor II-V resolving to Ima7

The example above is a great exercise to practice some solid sounding 5-note voicings for a minor II-V (resolving to a Ima7 chord, just like in the second half of the bridge to All the Things You Are¹). So buckle up and get ready to take this whole thing through the cycle of fifths in all keys! You might well end up with a brand new, hip sounding chord or two in your toolbox. 🙂

The first chord, F#mi7(b5), is built using what Mark Levine (1989) calls the insen pentatonic (B C E F# A). You can construct it yourself (without looking at the sheet music) by first playing an E below middle C (as the b7 of the chord, that E respects standard low interval limits), then skipping the F#, playing the A, skipping the B, playing the C, and so forth (in other words, playing every other note in the insen pentatonic scale and sounding all the notes together with both hands). As you can see from the example above, I have notated all five inversions of that chord (first ascending, and then descending all the way back to the inversion chosen initially). I find it very beneficial to practice in that fashion in order to create a “sheet of sound” effect (like McCoy Tyner comping for John Coltrane!); having all five versions of the chord under your belt will also enable you to voice lead as smoothly as possible in any situation, taking into account where you’re coming from and where you’re going harmonically. Lastly, if the tune you’re playing calls for dwelling on a certain chord for a somewhat prolonged amount of time (a few bars), there lies a perfect opportunity for you to explore some of those inversions for the sake of variation…

The second chord is a B7 to which we have added a b9, a #9, and a b13. These tensions form a C2 triad (C D G) which when inverted gives us either two perfect fourths stacked on top of each other (D G C), or a Gsus triad (G C D)². Therefore we have an upper structure triad chord (UST) voiced with the aforementioned triad on top (played by the right hand) and the guide tones in the bottom (in the left hand). To be musically consistent with the phrasing used for F#mi7(b5), I have included several “inversions” here too (to be precise: inversions of the top triad in the right hand, and inversions of the guide tones in the left).

The final chord to which this progression resolves is an Ema7 chord (with thensions 9 and 13). The building process here is the exact same as for F#mi7(b5) (with the playing and skipping of every other tone in the scale), except that this time, a “regular”³ anhemitonic (containing no semitones) pentatonic is used (B C# D# F# G#). Notice how each individual voice outlines the pentatonic scale melodically… Neat, huh? I sure like it! (the same thing goes for the insen pentatonic we talked about above).

And there you have it: three solid sounding, 2-hand voicings for your minor II-V resolving to a major I chord. I hope you’ll enjoy practicing this snippet and that it will prove to be a valuable addition to your harmonic vocabulary!

Notes

¹ Click here for a transcription (example #2) of guitarist Remo Palmieri soloing over the bridge of All the Things You Are (Gillespie 1993).

² Click here to see these quartal triads (2 and suspended) in root position and their inversions notated in treble clef.

³ In order to differentiate this particular pentatonic scale from other kinds of 5-note scales (such as the insen pentatonic mentioned earlier), I usually refer to it as “global.” After all, it “has been found in use upon every single continent of the planet Earth.” (Hewitt 2013)

References

Gillespie, Dizzy. Groovin’ High. Savoy 152. 1993 (originally released in 1955).

Hewitt, Michael. “Section 5: Pentatonic Scales.” In Musical Scales of the World, 125-134. The Note Tree, 2013.

Levine, Mark. “Chapter 15: Pentatonic Scales.” In The Jazz Piano Book, 219-237. Petaluma: Sher Music Company, 1989.


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how to practice and internalize modal colors

If you’ve ever had a go at analyzing a standard and/or figuring out what scales to use on each chord, the question “So, what exactly is the deal with modes?” might have popped up in your mind. This very question certainly did arise recently during an online conversation I was having with a student of mine, who further developed his concern: “In the key of C for example, all of the modes are made up of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano)… So why bother learning them!?” That is indeed a good question…

As musicians, we have to remember, and above all experience, that each mode has a distinctive flavor, or color, and conveys a particular mood or feeling. A mode’s particular color is conferred to it by the specific arrangement of intervals within the mode, and the resulting relationship each tone in the mode bears with its tonic. Some tones play a more important role than others in giving a mode its unique color. We call them “characteristic notes.” So let’s have a look in more detail at each mode of the major scale, and see if we can figure out what the characteristic note(s) are for each of them.

The modes of the major scale above are ordered from the brightest or most “major sounding” (Lydian’s intervals are all major or augmented, with the exception of the perfect 5th), to the darkest or most “minor sounding” (Locrian’s intervals are all minor or diminished, with the exception of the perfect 4th). The root C being common to all seven modes, it is not considered a characteristic note (or part of a pair of characteristic notes) for any mode.

Practice Tips

Just like I did for the recordings above, spend some time with each mode, improvising with it in free rhythm (no regular pulsation necessarily needed here). You can explore melodic ideas in the right hand while sporadically holding down two Cs an octave apart in the left hand. Spend 5 to 10 minutes (or more) with a particular mode during each session, and practice different modes based on different tonics every day. Eventually, all 7 modes in all 12 keys (84 in total!) should become familiar musical terrain, but take it easy… day by day and one step at a time! The goal is to internalize them deeply, and fully assimilating one mode in one key will help you assimilate other modes (in the same or different keys) faster.

Then of course, you can start applying them in the context of tunes. Modal jazz tunes such as So What, Impressions, Cantaloupe Island, etc. are a great starting point because they usually feature a slow harmonic rhythm (the same chord spanning a large number of measures) and few different modes/tonic centers.


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using improvisation to increase your self-confidence and tune in to your own musical voice

Improvisation can sometimes feel daunting, even to the best musicians. Questions like “where should I start?” or “is what I am playing any good?” are indeed uttered far too often, when in fact there is no right or wrong… Everyone is capable of improvising (we all do it in speech for example), but even so, blockages often remain when put on the spot in a musical situation that requires “in the moment” creativity. So how does one go about asserting her/himself musically?

Drop all forms of self-judgment and self-criticism

If you chose to walk the path of true freedom in music, you’ll quickly realize that most of the work is of a psychological nature rather than a musical one. Sure, it’s still a great idea to practice on a daily basis and by all means, I encourage you to do so! But instrumental technique should only be viewed as a means to expressing yourself, not as an ultimate goal: virtuosic display is only relevant when backed up with a good story, a message, earnest feeling and emotions… No one really wants to hear a continuous string of loud and fast notes void of meaning…

The good news is: regardless of your technical ability on your instrument, you can always channel that heartfelt storytelling into your music. Don’t judge yourself, play with conviction, and drop all self-criticism. Often, what might initially be a “mistake” can turn into a beautiful thing: in his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch talks about how oysters eventually make pearls out of grains of sand that inadvertently fall into their shells…

Don’t try and play anything groundbreaking

I remember Greg Hopkins, professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, telling the class something along these lines: “Don’t try to be original. Write what your hear and you will be original.” The same goes for improvisation, and the “less is more” approach is definitely recommended to begin with: simple ideas are often beautiful! Play few notes with strong time and feel and let the music come to you. The more virtuosic stuff will come naturally after a while if you stay humble and committed to playing what you actually hear (as opposed to running scales up, down, and sideways just because you theoretically know that they fit a given chord…)

Let’s have a look at a practical example: a seven note scale (such as the major scale) is sometimes too cumbersome for beginner improvisers to use, so breaking it up into two tetrachords (groups of four notes that usually span the interval of a fourth) can work wonders. Spend time exploring and internalizing each tetrachord (C to F and G to C in the case of the C major scale for instance). With four notes at your disposal, there is still a lot to do… Remember that your melodic motives can go up, down, or be a combination of both. Repeated notes are also an option. Generally speaking, being creative with the rhythm is a great starting point when the range of useable notes is limited. Experiment with different limitations and find your freedom within the boundaries that you set for yourself.

Establish rituals

In his book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within, jazz pianist Kenny Werner explains how to establish a direct connection from your true self to your instrument using four guided meditations (also available in audio format for convenience). I thoroughly recommend them as a ritual that will relax your body, calm your mind, and give your self-confidence a boost.

There are plenty of other things you can do on a daily basis to help you on the path to musical freedom, that don’t even require purchasing a book, or using any accessories or instruments. The great Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke emphasizes the importance of three themes in his Letters to a Young Poet: childhood, nature, and friendship. Spend time recalling places, events, and the emotions and feelings of your childhood in great detail. Improvisation is akin to child play… And for fresh inspiration, wander in nature and socialize with dear friends. I might also suggest regularly remembering your dreams and writing them down or sharing/discussing them with somebody (a person you can trust). All these activities will dramatically improve your creativity and general well-being.

In the end, it’s all about being open and having fun tapping into the great subconscious “pool” of musical ideas. Taming the ego and being able to let go of all preconceptions and expectations are crucial parts of the process. The journey can be a rough ride, but it is absolutely worth embarking on. True magic will happen along the way. You will no longer play the music… Become the instrument and let the music play you!

References

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.
Werner, Kenny. Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.


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deriving tetratonic scales from the “new notes” on Oleleko


Let’s have a look at the chord grid for the solo section on Oleleko (the electric piano improvisation happens from 2’02 to 3’35 on the recording):


The following table lists all chord symbols, the parent scales they derive from, and their “new notes,” which is a concept introduced by contemporary jazz pianist and composer Laszlo Gardony (for each chord, we list the notes in the parent scale that were not present in the scale corresponding to the previous chord – this helps to give a sense of forward motion to the music and emphasize the shifts in harmony as we go through the grid):

Bar Chord
Symbol
Mode
(Parent Scale)
New
Note(s)?
121 C7 C mixolydian
(F major)
C D E A
136 D7(#11) D lydian dominant
(A melodic minor)
F# G# B
137 Eb6 Eb ionian
(Eb major)
Eb F G Bb
139 Eb7sus Eb mixolydian
(Ab major)
Db
141 Eb6 Eb ionian
(Eb major)
D
143 Eb7sus Eb mixolydian
(Ab major)
Db
144 E7(#11) E lydian dominant
(B melodic minor)
E F# B D
145 F#6 F# ionian
(F# major)
D# E#
147 F#7sus F# mixolydian
(B major)
E
149 F#6 F# ionian
(F# major)
E#
150 Db7(#11) Db lydian dominant
(Ab melodic minor)
G

Now let’s find possible tetratonic scales based on those “new notes” (using four-note scales will enable us to limit our melodic choices and create wider, more angular intervals, while including as many of the “new notes” as possible in order to retain the characteristic harmonic shifts in the music):

Bar Chord
Symbol
Tetratonic
Scale(s)
121 C7 A minor (= A C D E)
136 D7(#11) E major (= E F# G# B)
137 Eb6 Eb major
139 Eb7sus Db major, Bb minor
141 Eb6 Bb major, G minor
143 Eb7sus Db major, Bb minor
144 E7(#11) B minor
145 F#6 C# major, A# minor
147 F#7sus E major, C# minor
149 F#6 C# major, A# minor
150 Db7(#11) Eb major

When there are two tetratonic choices, I simply go with the one I like best (in bold in the table above). By all means, feel free to experiment with both options and chose whichever sounds most satisfying to your ear!

Finally, and for the purpose of practicing, we can further break down these tetratonic sounds into triads: once you feel comfortable improvising using the triads exclusively, it’s easier to play the full tetratonic scales (adding a major second to major triads and a perfect fourth to minor triads to get the corresponding tetratonics).

Bar Chord
Symbol
Tetratonic
Scale(s)
Triads
121 C7 A minor A-
136 D7(#11) E major E
137 Eb6 Eb major Eb
139 Eb7sus Bb minor Bb-
141 Eb6 G minor G-
143 Eb7sus Bb minor Bb-
144 E7(#11) B minor B-
145 F#6 C# major C#
147 F#7sus C# minor C#-
149 F#6 C# major C#
150 Db7(#11) Eb major Eb

Complete sheet music for “Oleleko” (from the album Tao, 2019) is available. Please visit the Funnelljazz catalogue for more information.


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hand independence exercise based on Ainu canon

It’s Independence Day in America, and I thought it opportune to post a special workout for pianists focusing on… hand independence, with a global twist!

The song we’ll use as the basis for this exercise is an Ainu canon (the Ainu are a people from Northern Japan and the Russian Far East), which involves call and response between a lead singer and a group of singers.

Although it may seem simple on the surface level, we’ll see that the mental and muscular processes involved in order to produce an acceptable rendition of it on the piano are in fact rather intricate…

To achieve this, I suggest we break down the practice into the five following steps:

  1. learning the melody in the right hand;
  2. learning the (same) melody in the left hand (the song being a canon, the hands are indeed essentially playing the same melody, two beats apart);
  3. adding an accompanying foot pattern on the upbeats to the right and left hand melodies (optional);
  4. putting it all together with the right hand playing the role of the lead singer (call) and the left hand responding [letter A in the sheet music below];
  5. doing the same exercise again, but this time, reversing the hands: the left hand is now playing the lead part (call) and the right the chorus’ part (response) [letter B].

As you will see when you try this at home, although the result sounds simple and the melody is made up of only 3 notes ﹣ a tritonic scale roughly comprised of E, F#, and B (the tuning is not exact) ﹣ it does require some patient practice to really internalize this canon and play it accurately on the piano. For instance, particular attention should be given to the proper feel and articulation (when playing the legato and staccato notes in particular).

Have fun working on your hand independence with this song! It’s a great warm-up before tackling a Bach Invention or Sinfonia for example…


Sheet music (PDF) available here:


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breaking up the Dorian mode into two pentatonic scales


Sheet music for Igneous Alloy (from the album Spirit of the Snail), the tune used as an example in this video, is now available on SMP Press:


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