Sunday, February 28, 2010

Looking Back - finding inspiration in the past

I recently came across a recording by Charlie Parker that blew me away. The phrasing, fluidity, and pure lyricism on this track “Embraceable You”, make it as fresh sounding today as it was when it was recorded in 1947. In fact, since stumbling upon this, I recalled the great saxophone master Dave Liebman saying how much this solo influenced his approach to melody and phrasing.

A few years ago, I remember asking a well known modern day guitarist what he was working on. I was expecting him to talk of advanced harmonic devices or complex time signatures, but instead he told me he was working out of the Charlie Parker Omnibook.
When Dave Holland was first putting his band together he saturated his listening with Dixieland music from the 1920’s. His goal was to was to recreate that vibe in a modern small group context.

I find all great artists from time to time feel a need to “go back” and draw inspiration from the past masters. One of my favourite art museums is the Vincent Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. A beautiful and extensive collection of his works laid out chronologically. In the middle of the exhibit while Van Gogh is at the height of his artistic output one stumbles upon these large Renaissance-like paintings. While clearly having found his voice as an artist, Van Gogh felt the need to go back and copy (transcribe) such artists as Rembrandt.
I found a similar example at a Picasso exhibit recently. Again at the peak of his cubist period, his sketchbooks at the time reveal he was still sketching nudes and fruit baskets.
That’s what is known as ’keeping up the chops’!!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Solo Piano Pt 2 - walking bass

Here is another video of how one can approach playing solo jazz piano. Playing with a walking bass line. Although not predominant in the legacy, it can be effective. I usually include a walking bass line piece when I perform a solo concert. Dave McKenna and Lennie Tristano were both masters at this.
The challenge for the pianist, is to find the notes ‘between’ the chord changes.
A tune like “The Touch of your Lips” has for the most part two chords per bar (which land on beats 1 and 3). So what do we play on beats 2 and 4 in our left hand?
The quickest solution is to find the dominant (or the V) of your destination note. For example, if your destination note is D (d minor), then the dominant of D is A (A7). Substitutions for A7 such as the tritone, in this case Eb, or C# diminished will also be effective (more on diminished substitutions in a later blog).

In this video I am paying tribute to Lennie, improvising on the changes of 'The Touch of Your Lips' or as I call this piece 'A Crutch for your Hips'

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Solo Piano Pt 1 - the classical influence

I have been working on a solo piano cd recently which should be released sometime later this year. The history of solo piano in jazz is rich and vast. From Fats Waller to McCoy Tyner…Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett there are many resources to draw upon.
There is also a great deal of information available in the classical realm. In fact, if you listen closely you will find many of the great solo jazz pianists derived their material from the great classical masters of centuries gone by.
Bill Evans, for example, was clearly and directly influenced by impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. If it’s not clear to you, go have a listen to Bill Evans with Symphony Orchestra. On this recording Evans pays homage to his primary harmonic influences. In pianists like Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea one hears overwhelming evidence of Scriabin, Bartok and Stravinsky. Jarrett’s romanticism and as of late his atonal or pan-tonal (atonal with pockets of tonality) approach to solo piano are clear indications that he understood and relished the music of Brahms and Charles Ives and everyone in between. Cecil Taylor’s textural explorations should not go unnoticed as it reflected the textural explorations of many of the mid to late 20th century composers.

I want to share a few videos of a free improvisation I recorded last fall in the McGill studio where I teach. The first movement is a pan-tonal improv based on an intervallic motif, the minor 6th,and contrpuntal in nature. I am using harmonic and melodic material that may be heard in some of the early 20th century composers. The 2nd movement is more technical but again its source is early 20th century harmonic devices that I have applied to a modern free jazz improvisatory approach.

I’ll be talking more about the importance of playing “free” in later blogs.

First Post

Welcome to J-tonal. First and foremost I have to accredit the title of my blog to my good friend Wali Mohammed. Thanks Wali!!
My intention here is to pass on some of the materials I have been teaching and things I have learned as a piano/ensemble instructor at McGill University for the past going on 20 years. Many of my students have gone on to successful careers as performers, teachers and composers. The blog is intended to address the concerns of the intermediate/advanced jazz piano student (university level - grad/post grad) although all are welcome to read, watch and participate. I intend to address issues such as technique, harmony, ballad playing, learning lines, the importance of transcribing and much more.