Melodic Concepts for Jazz Piano: Volume 1

The first thing I wanted, once I had learned a few “licks,” or melodic patterns, was to have hip lines.  You need to be able to run the changes without thinking too much. Here are some steps to help you get started.

First of all, play through the tune using standard (spelled from bottom up) 3-7-9 and 7-3-5 voicings, and playing the root in the right hand. Do this in as many keys as possible, hopefully all 12!

Next, we do the same thing but use a 1-2-3-5 melodic pattern for each chord.

This is fine for starters, but, as you can tell, it’s a little awkward, because you have to drop octaves for each new root. So now, we’ll hip it up a bit with a melodic pattern for the “I” chord based on a Charlie Parker melodic idea. On the ii-V’s (Cm7-F7, Am7 D7, etc.), we’ll substitute a melodic line on the V that descends to the next root. So the resulting line is much smoother, and easier to play.  In bars 5 and 6, it’s two bars on the same chord, Bb7, so I introduce an Ab in the last eighth note of bar 5, so we don’t have to repeat the Bb on the downbeat of the next bar.

Definitely come up with your own harmonic variations on this, for example, in the last two bars, Am7 D7/Gm7 F#7. And in bar 6, try Bbm7 Eb7. I also enjoy F7 Gm7 in bar 7. And you can play the whole exercise using entirely dominant-quality chords too.

There’s no shortcut for having some melodic “vocabulary” that you can run through all keys. Here are a couple of very easy patterns that might be helpful. If you’ve worked through the exercises already, the first should be very familiar. Although it’s built on the two-bar minor ii, dominant V/ major I progression, it works just fine on dominant V/major I, and, for that matter, on two bars of V, or two bars of I. You just need this stuff to help you connect your more melodic ideas. You can practice these either with or without the left hand at a slow tempo at first, then speed it up.

I like to practice these making up lines in the second bar of each lick, so we have a steady stream of eighth notes to work with. At least you have that capability, and part of your improvisational process is deciding not to play things you already know how to do. That is taking control of the music, which is what you want.

Basics of Accompanying Singers: Volume 1

When playing behind a singer, you are one instrument, you and she. (I’m using feminine pronouns here for simplicity.) So try to imagine that her voice is a third hand to the right of your right hand. Always, always listen. Listen to the singer more than you listen to yourself. You will always sound good then, provided you know the music.

That’s first: Know the music. In jazz, this is problematic, as there are Richard Rodgers changes for “Blue Moon,” rock changes and jazz changes, all different. Knowing what works for the singer is pretty important. Changes are a subject for a whole ’nother column, so let’s assume here that you have worked out some changes for a jazz tune, like this one.

When working with a singer, you MUST know the melody; it’s not enough just to bang out the changes. For example, if you turn the Cmaj7 into a Cmaj9 (which is fine, normally), and you put the ninth in the top, it’s going to clash with the singer’s note and throw her off. As a general rule, make sure that the top note in your voicing has no clashing potential with the note that the singer is holding. Similarly, if the tune has upper extensions of the chord, this might not be notated in the voicing, so you have to know what they are anyway, to avoid putting in additions that clash with those extensions.

Notice that in the 10th bar, the notes F, G, Ab, Bb are consonant with a G7 b9 #9 chord. So if you play a G9 with a natural nine, even if the nine is buried in the chord, it’s going to sound wrong. So beware of lead sheets. Make sure that you as a pianist are not clashing with any chromatic note in the melody, unless it’s extremely brief, like a passing eighth note.

Another important thing to remember is NEVER OVERPLAY. Do not treat this as a piano gig with a singer accompanist. Her part is the melody and has to come first.  Anything you do melodically and rhythmically to distract from that is not cool, unless the music specifically asks for that.

Try to find the minimal amount of notes that will work for the situation. Check with the singer to see what she thinks. Even singers who are not trained in music often have excellent rhythmic senses and know exactly what they need behind them. Let them count off their own tunes. If they are not comfortable doing that, let them snap their fingers, or whatever, and get the tempo from that. Look at everyone in the band and give a firm, loud count-off.

When you do “fills,” know the melody enough that you can play them in the rests of the melody, and sometimes over held long notes of a tune. Notice that in bar 8 the fill gives the singer the lead-in for the next part of the melody. This is good, considerate accompanying.

When doing “rubato” or “colla voce,” meaning out-of-tempo stuff, keep the tempo moving in the long notes of the voice so that the singer doesn’t run out of air. Also remember that “rubato” doesn’t actually mean out of tempo; it means MOVING tempo. So always give a pulse of some kind to the music even if it’s “out of tempo.”

The question always comes, especially when you are working in a duo with a singer: Do you lead her or does she lead you? This is something that always has to be discussed, unless the singer is unusually comfortable with a really open jazz setting. In general, the singer leads, but she might want you to lead at times. In that case, she has to tell you. So have an open, non-defensive dialogue about this. When a singer makes a comment about my playing, I sometimes feel as if I’m being criticized, but she is just telling me what she needs to sound at her best. It is your job to give the singer what she needs, because when you do, you sound at YOUR best.

–  From an article originally published in Gig Magazine

Tune Learning

I find that many of my students learn a tune, and a year later, it’s forgotten. I think learning a tune is both an aural and an analytical process. In addition to listening to different recorded versions of a tune, (until you can sing the melody, and learn the lyrics if there are any) it’s really necessary to isolate the melody and harmony (both the chords and bass line) and master those. I’ve figured out a good step-by-step process to doing this. First practice the melody slowly, with a metronome, until it’s secure, then go on to the following steps.





Practicing: Part 1 – Warming up

I’m a big fan of a 15-to-20-minute warm-up. It relaxes me, focuses my attention on the tasks ahead and loosens up my fingers, hands and arms. I don’t focus on the individual fingers too much; rather, I like to make sure my arm rotation is happening … from left (as I play the thumb on my right hand) to right (as I play the fifth finger), and vice versa on the left hand. Allow the hand and arm to play the notes, unless the tempo is REALLY fast. Then engage the fingers, but don’t play too loud. Use full arm and shoulder weight for really loud passages.

More on this later. Today we’ll give you a great warm-up routine.

I got this from my teacher at Duke, the late Loren Withers, who was a student of Ernest Hutcheson, a former president of the Juilliard School. First, acquire, if you don’t have it already, the classic Hanon studies book (Schirmer, Vol. 925). On pages 50 through 64, he has very good fingerings for the 12 major and minor scales. Incidentally, his alternative fingering for the chromatic scale, on the bottom of page 64, I like very much.

Pick a metronome marking of, perhaps, quarter note = 60. Then practice your scales the following way:

Play scales in quarter note = 60, one octave. Start mp, get gradually louder, don’t stop on top, just get there, maybe at a forte dynamic, and come back, getting softer to the original mp.

Think about sound … make each note RIGHT with the metronome. No bumps in the sound; make the crescendo and diminuendo even and musical.

Now play in eighth notes, two octaves. Same approach.

Then, triplet eighths, three octaves.

Finally, 16th notes, four octaves. If this isn’t possible, either slow down the tempo or leave out the 16th notes for now. It’s important to have even tone, consistent crescendo/diminuendo and perfect rhythm. I have done this every day for 35 years (except for my occasional days off!!!).

Then I do my chromatic scale, starting on C. If I’m feeling good, I might omit the quarter notes here and go right to the eighth notes. Same approach.

Next, I would tackle dominant seventh chords (Hanon, pp. 70-71).

Quarter notes one octave, eighth notes two octaves, triplet eighths three octaves, 16th notes four octaves. Don’t skip any steps. Think rhythmically, and think about great tone. That’s what I love about the piano; even if you’re a beginner, you can get a great sound right away.

Next, use the same approach for major and minor triads. (Hanon pp. 65-68).

I’m not a huge fan of pounding through the Hanon uncritically, but there are some exercises in it that are of value:

On a particular day, I might pick one from pp. 22-43 and run it through a mode I’m trying to learn — in all keys, of course. I also think the trill exercise on pp. 76-77 is worthwhile. Keep the hand relaxed, and let the arm rotation help you execute the trill. Don’t do it with just the fingers.

Many of the Hanon exercises concern themselves with technical problems in mid-19th-century piano music and are not as useful to the modern jazz player. I’d rather a student practice Bach two-part inventions, easier Mozart and Beethoven, and Chopin preludes and etudes. I think you can get technically all you need to be a fine jazz pianist from these composers, throwing in a little Debussy and Ravel for tone color and balance.

Jazz Harmony for Piano: Volume 1

I constantly get questions about how to develop good jazz piano voicings. I’m currently writing a book about  this very topic. Here are a few examples from it, and how to practice them.

1. There are two basic versions of every voicing: one with the 3rd  (above the bass) on the bottom (the A version) and one with the 7th  (above the bass) on the bottom (the B version).  Good voice leading switches the two, so that the 3rd in the m7 chord resolves to the 7th in the next chord, and the 7th to the 3rd. Simply play this progression, and keep going with the pattern established; Am7 D7 Gmaj7, Gm7 C7 Fmaj7, Fm7 Bb7 Ebmaj7, Ebm7 Ab7 Dbmaj7, C#m7 F#7 Bmaj7, Bm7 E7 Amaj7.  Notice each series of three chords progresses downward in whole steps.

2. In this example, the same progression is played, but now in descending half  steps.

3. This is the same as #1, but with the 3rd and 7th reversed.

4. This is the same as #2, but with the 3rd and 7th reversed.

5. This is the same as #1, but with an added note, either the 9th or the 6th. The right hand is actually a great left hand voicing, too. So practice this with the hands reversed. Same with #6.

6. Same as #2 with the added note.

7. Now, we’ve added a 3rd or 7th to the left hand. This is called a “shell” voicing, and often serves in bebop piano as a minimal accompaniment to a linear right hand when there’s no bass player. We’ve changed the right hand so there’s no 3rd  or 7th. Notice that there’s NO duplication of notes. This makes the voicing more sophisticated and contemporary sounding.

8. Same concept as #7 with the harmonic progression of #2. I’ve transposed the voicings so they sound good even when they get lower. In general, avoid the 3rd sounding below the C below middle C.

– Bill Cunliffe

Jazz Harmony for Piano: Volume 2

Here are some ideas that allow you to play a given voicing in many different contexts. My feeling is, you don’t need that many materials, but you need what you have in all keys and situations.
Back in the ’40s, people derived voicings from upper extensions of chords (b9, sharp 11, etc.). That’s still useful today, but most modern voicings come out of scales. We could start with Dorian (for the minor 7th chord), Lydian (for the major 7th chord) and Lydian b7 (for the dominant). First of all, be comfortable with these in all keys. I tend to take a scale and do it in all keys once a day, then on following days rotate through all the other scales I want to learn, such as diminished, melodic minor ascending (jazz minor), altered, Locrian sharp 2 and half step/whole step. My good friend Bob Sheppard, on the other hand, takes a key and plays all his stuff in that key during a practice session. I think that’s great, especially for A, E, B and F sharp, scales I need to deal with more often than I do.
Let’s work on the first one, C Dorian. It’s very helpful to use this scale in all sorts of vertical arrays. Here are some of the most important ones. Pick the ones you enjoy the most, and go through all 12 keys with them.
Spend 10 minutes a day doing this, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly your melodic and harmonic vocabulary expands. You should do these with the left hand as well as the right.Now, to expand your comping vocabulary, I’d suggest these patterns:

Do in all keys. I promise you’ll play better once you learn to do this. You’ll have more lines, too, because if you hear it in your left hand, it will come out in your right.
Start with the modes you use the most, and get those happening. Better to have this down in three modes than partially mastered in a bunch. Having them down in the six modes mentioned above is a great long-term goal.

Basics of Accompanying Singers: Volume 2

This is my last installment on working with singers, and I thought I might delve a bit into the psychological aspects.

We instrumentalists often forget that the voice is the most difficult instrument to “play.” You have to have a good ear just to even have a shot at singing. If you don’t look great and have tremendous stage presence, most people won’t even listen to what you are doing. You could wake up and not have your instrument working. When you are sick, it often totally impairs your instrument, and you can’t work.

Now, it is true that some singers are utterly focused on their difficulties in doing what they are supposed to do, and it can come off to others as self-absorption or ego. But most are just trying to do the best they can. What if you woke up one morning and went to the piano to practice, and it was sick and wouldn’t make a sound for days?

Anyway, a bit of psychology is good for all relationships, musical and otherwise. So let’s talk about how we can form relationships with singers that help both them and us.

The first thing to realize in all relationships is that everyone’s DNA is slightly different, and what works with one person won’t necessarily work with another. The second thing is, no matter how difficult a relationship might be, both people are usually doing the best they can and have good intentions. So it’s important to grasp with a singer what she needs to be at her best, and what makes you feel good about it, and try to reach that happy medium. (Feminine pronouns used here for simplicity.) See, it’s a two-way thing. We need to serve our singers, but the relationship has to serve and please us, too.

I have a little theory about that. The reasons I play music are threefold. I like music, I like cool people, and I like money. I usually need two out of three. One out of three usually isn’t enough. So … good singer, nice person, not great bread, I would do it. Especially getting started. Great bread, not a good singer, not a nice person, probably not, if I could help it.

So it’s important to know why you do gigs. If things don’t go well one night, then you have perspective on why you are there. If it’s three out of three, then a bad night won’t shake you. Because there will always be bad nights. But know why you do gigs, and when you accept a gig with a barely adequate singer who is a nice person and the gig pays well, DON’T COMPLAIN! You knew going in what this was about. Know what you want, and choose what you want.

Now, singers have different needs. I have worked with Maureen McGovern, a wonderful vocalist who has intricately scripted stage patter, tight arrangements and virtuosic scat vocals that are written out beforehand and sung with great sound and perfect intonation. Timing is everything. Like a great play, everything has to be just so, and it’s really exciting when it is.

Jane Monheit, another terrific singer I’ve worked with, has skeletal lead sheets and has me make up intros, and everyone solos on almost every tune. It’s a different kind of pleasure, equally wonderful.

Now, to Maureen, tempos are CRITICAL. Jane doesn’t care quite as much. When we do rubato stuff with just piano and vocal (they call it “colla voce” in New York), their approaches are completely different. With Maureen, the part is partially written out, and I have to match her timing exactly. Although I follow her most of the time, occasionally I pull the tempo back and occasionally I push it. All of this is rehearsed and is almost exactly the same every time.

Now, within this context, I can reharmonize the tune in a myriad of ways. And even though the tempos are largely similar from night to night, sometimes when I know Maureen is going to take time on a long note, I will put in a little ritard before she hits that note. Makes it feel really dramatic and spacious.

With Jane there is a lot more freedom. There are only lead sheets, and sometimes not even those. So I really have to know the tunes intimately. If I don’t know the melody, I might step on her when I am doing fills. Remember that fills should normally be done only during spaces in the vocal, or when the vocalist is holding a note for a while. Jane will sometimes change the melody and “back phrase” (sing behind the beat).

You have to know whether you are supposed to go with the singer or keep your place and let her stay behind and catch up to you. This comes from knowing the singer and what she wants. It becomes instinct after a while. But you have to know the music first. No substitute for that.

– From an article originally published in Gig Magazine