Tag Archives: jazz language

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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Milt Jackson’s vibraphone solo on Anthropology

I recently stumbled upon an excellent article on Jazz Advice about jazz language. In short, it’s about the importance of learning it!

Jazz is indeed a language. When children learn a language, they listen, pick out their favorite words, and repeat what they hear… Over and over again! We jazz musicians can totally take example from these kids in order to improve our knowledge of – and fluency in – the language of jazz. Of course, the repeating part will involve transposing as well, and that’s where the fun really starts!

So I’ve decided to regularly transcribe some of my favorite solos, pick my favorite phrases, and share my findings with you on here. I hope you’ll enjoy them! Today, let’s start with Milt Jackson’s vibraphone solo on Anthropology.

It’s always nice to practice rhythm changes with its characteristic I-VI-II-V progression (in fact Ima7-V7alt/II-IImi7-V7(b9) in this particular case) since it’s such a common harmonic pattern in jazz.

The one phrase that really stuck out for me is played in bars 9 to 12. I like it because it has some cool non-diatonic action in bar 10. Here’s how I practiced it both in my right and left hands, using two different kinds of voicings for the accompanying hand (“positions A and B” as Mark Levine puts it in his Jazz Piano Book). The example is in Bb major, the original key. As stated before, it’s essential to take it fully around the cycle of 5ths in order to make sure to really internalize the phrase and the chords in all keys. Just be mindful of low interval limits when playing the chords in the left hand.

The use of anticipation in the second bar of Milt’s phrase is remarkable: the first four eighth notes (Ab B A F#) are all part of the half-whole scale based on F, which is the scale we would use over F7(b9). The second set of eighth notes (Bb F D Bb) is simply a descending triad outlining the upcoming Bbma7 sound in the third bar.

It’s also interesting to note that in one of the positions, the G7alt voicing can be thought of as Fmi7(b5)/G (bars 1 & 11). That means you can play a mi7(b5) chord a whole step below the root of any altered chord, and you’ve instantly got yourself a cool voicing for it!

Similarly, in the other position, the G7alt voicing resembles a Bma7(b5)/G (bars 6 & 16). So it’s also an option to play a ma7(b5) chord a major third above the root of any altered chord to get the desired altered sound.


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