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How to play (5) like Chick Corea
For over five decades, Chick Corea has inspired and delighted legions of fans and musical disciples. Like his former employer Miles Davis, he can’t be pigeonholed. Chick’s musical endeavors span from Mozart to Monk. Any musical situation Corea participates in contains a strong, immediately identifiable creative core. I can say from my personal experience playing piano duets with him that his energy and openness are contagious and inspiring. The following concepts are just the tip of the iceberg, but if you incorporate them into your own playing, you’ll be channeling Chick’s core.
Pentatonics and Quartal Voicings
Ex. 1a illustrates five-note scales that Chick often incorporates into many of his right hand lines. The quartal (fourth-based) left-hand structures are signature chords that compliment the pentatonic scales.
Ex. 1b demonstrates how Chick sometimes anchors his quartal voicings with those constructed from roots and fifths.
Ex. 1c is a right-hand pentatonic-based line with a signature Corea stamp: the grace note.
Ex. 1d puts all these components into action. Check out Chick’s album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs for more examples.
Ex. 2a illustrates how Chick’s accompanying is so compelling that it can work as solo piano. Again, notice his frequent use of quartal voicings.
In Ex. 2b, Chick uses diminished structures, built from second inversion triads in the right hand over quartal voicings in the left.
Ex. 2c uses quartal structures underneath right major triads. Many of these comping techniques can be heard on Chick’s arresting album Three Quartets.
Single Note Lines
In Ex. 3a, Chick uses a melodic line in the tradition of Bebop pioneer Bud Powell (a major influence), distributed between two hands, and at lightning speed. Ex. 3b demonstrates how Chick often thinks of each finger percussively, like a drummer.
Notice how distributing these patterns between the right and left hands lets you execute them fluidly.
Ex. 3c again shows how Chick divides melodic and rhythmic statements between both hands. Weaving lines throughout both the black and white keys makes them sound more chromatic and less tied to specific chord changes. Check out Chick’s Akoustic Band and Elektric Band albums for more riveting right-hand lines.
The Maj7#5 Chord
Chick was one of the first musicians to use the six-note augmented scale, as well as one of the first to play the major seventh chord with a sharp fifth. Demonstrated in Ex. 4, this dissonant sonority can be heard on recordings from his avant-garde period, such as those with the band Circle.
Another signature Corea sound is his extensive use of “slash” (or compound) chords, shown here in Ex. 5. F/F# is a diminished sound, E/Eb is a Spanishtinged. Gb/C is half- diminished. Db/A is, once again, a maj7#5 chord, and Gb/Ab is a dominant seventh with a suspended fourth. Corea often played such slash chords with his group Return To Forever.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since the revolutionary jazzpianist Bill Evans left us at the all too young age of 51. Evans was, and still is, among the most influential jazz pianists of the past sixty years. His effect on modern jazz piano was so profound, he actually influenced pianists whose fame both followed his own (Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Brad Mehldau), and preceded it (Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson).
On both sides of this generational divide, pianists who heard Bill Evans altered their own playing as a result. There’s no doubt that had Bill survived to his 81st birthday, he would have added many more ways to this “how to play like” list. He left it to us to add to such lists ourselves. That’s what he wanted, after all.
Left-Hand Rootless Voicings
Bill Evans single-handedly changed the sound of jazz piano—literally, with his left hand! His four-note, rootless chord voicings consist of guide tones (thirds and sevenths), along with chord tones, color tones, extensions, and/or alterations. These compact voicings also have inherently smooth voice leading.
Ex. 1a is a II-V-I progression in the key of C. Play these voicings with your right hand while playing the roots with your left to get used to the root movement. Then play them with your left hand alone. To practice, transpose up in half steps to the key of F. This position is often referred to as the “A-form.”
Ex. 1b shows the “B-form” of these voicings, and covers the keys of F# major through B major. These use the same notes as the A-form, but in a different configuration.
In Ex. 1c, we see the A-form of rootless voicings for a ii-V-i progression in minor. Notice the altered dominant voicings are the same as the unaltered dominant voicings: a tritone (or raised fourth) away, in the opposite form.
And in Ex. 1d, we see how to construct the B-form of rootless voicings for a ii-V-i in minor.
Evans’ lyrical right-hand lines often ended up in the higher reaches of the keyboard as a result of the position of his left-hand voicings.
Ex. 2aillustrates how Bill often used the notes from his left-hand voicings in his right-hand lines. Here is a signature lick of his over a II-V-I progression in C minor.
In Ex. 2b, we see his trademark scale tone and chromatic triad usage. Notice the triad pair of Eb major and Db major over the G7 altered (#9b13) chord. These triads are scale tone triads of the G altered scale (or Ab melodic minor). The E major triad is a chromatic triad. The triads over the Cmin6 chord are all scale tone triads taken from the C melodic minor scale.
Harmonic and Rhythmic Devices
Evans was a master of both harmonic and rhythmic innovation.
Ex. 3a is a series of ii-V progressions. By adding dominant seventh chromatic approach chords, Evans could enhance and expand a common harmonic progression. Note his trademark, subtle use of the grace note of the fifth going to the #5 (or b13) in the Bb7chord. His left-hand accompaniment often created a counter-melody to the right hand, and kept things moving.
Note how in Ex. 3b, Evans takes a typical II-V-III-VI turnaround progression and changes the V chord to a #II diminished chord. This subtle alteration creates unexpected harmonic interest.
Inner Voice Movement
Evans’ introspective style gave rise to frequent inner voice movement, which infused a contrapuntal component into his playing.
Ex. 4a illustrates a favorite Evans device for a minor chord. Here we see the inner voice movement of the fifth: 5, #5, 6, b6, and 5. His use of intervallic minor thirds ascending chromatically in the right hand let him play over any harmonic movement without playing the actual chord changes.
Ex. 4b shows inner voice movement within a ii-V-I progression. Evans was also one of the first jazz pianists to incorporate strings of sixteenth-notes interspersed with sixteenth-note triplets.
Locked Hands Technique
Evans often jokingly referred to himself as “king of the locked hands.” This technique, first developed by pianists like Nat “King” Cole and George Shearing, utilized four-way close chord voicings with the top note doubled down an octave. Bill modernized these fourway close structures by taking the note second from the top and dropping it an octave. This became known as a “drop two” voicing.
Ex. 5 illustrates this difficult but effective technique to harmonize melodies. Notice more triplets in the right hand (this time quarter- note triplets), a signature Evans rhythm.
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How to play (3) like Keith Jarret
KEITH JARRETT IS ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL JAZZ PIANISTS AND improvisers in the history of modern music. Emerging from his predecessors and influences (including Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Cecil Taylor), Jarrett forged a style that’s immediately identifiable to this day.
Long flowing lines and a prodigious technique are just two of his trademarks, as is a style that’s at once precise and loose, tonal and atonal, reserved and explosive. These dichotomies have come to define his playing, which appears in formats from acclaimed solo concerts and jazz trios to classical fare and beyond. Sprinkle some of Keith’s inspired musical magic into your own playing with these exercises.
Ex. 1. Right Hand Lines Keith’s
Keith’s single-note right hand lines are probably his best-known trademark. This Keith-inspired melodic line is built over the first eight measures of “Rhythm Changes,” a jazz staple in turn built on the chords of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Jarrett’s own bebop-derived language is seen here in what I call “neo-bop,” which employs eight-note bebop scales, chromatic approach notes, upper and lower neighbor tones, as well as diatonic and chromatic passing tones.
The left hand voicings also demonstrate Keith’s frequent use of dominant seventh sus4 chords in place of minor chords. Note that Keith sometimes lets his left hand crawl like a spider, using common tones between chords. Tip: Play the right hand alone at a fast clip to capture more of Keith’s sound in these lines.
Ex. 2. Country, Gospel, and Reggae
Keith fashioned a funky rhythmic style that at times seems to cunningly combine these three musical genres. This passage leans in the reggae and Gospel directions, with a nod towards country. Note the sixteenth-note triplets before the last chord. The left hand octaves and four-note voiced chords are other essential components of this sound.
Ex. 3. Polyphony
Keith can improvise poignant contrapuntal and polyphonic vignettes, evidencing his time spent playing the music of Bach and other Baroque composers. Ex. 3a has a Baroque flavor with modern harmonies, inner voice movements, and unusual cadences and resolutions.
Ex. 3b highlights Keith’s atonal explorations, which often erupt in dissonant and free sounding flurries. Keith’s immersion in 20th-century classical composers such as Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg, Hindemith, and Webern has informed his approach to this type of improvisation.
Ex. 4. Ostinatos and Vamps
Keith often employs a simple left hand repeated figure (known as an ostinato or vamp), while using his right hand to explore rhythms and tonalities that may or may not coincide with it. This takes a great deal of hand independence. Here, the right hand remains scalar and diatonic, over the left hand ostinato.
The use of eighth-note triplets is a Jarrett hallmark as well. The left hand remains anchored on F, which can be seen as a pedal point, another one of Keith’s trademark devices. These ostinatos and vamps are sometimes used as intros or endings, while other times they stand as pieces on their own.
Ex. 5. Endings
Unlike many jazz musicians who end solos and tunes with dramatic flourishes of arpeggios and big chords, Keith often takes a minimalistic approach to many of his endings. This type of progression shown here is usually found at the end of standards, which ends quietly on the root of the I chord without fanfare. It’s not a staccato ending, but rather a soft landing, which sounds only as long as the given eighth-note value indicates.
The left hand rootless fragments are typical Jarrett sonorities, as is the added chromatic II-V of F#min7 to B7. This surprising ending has a drama all its own—just like all of Keith Jarrett’s music!
Oscar Peterson was the first pianist I ever heard. His combination of musical ideas and confidence inspired me with its deft marriage of drive, swing, and precise execution. Peterson’s blend of bebop and blues has always carried an uplifting message for me as a listener, even long before I ever analyzed his playing theoretically. The harmonic colors he developed range from lyrical to big band-like block chord passages, so I’ve tried to profile a wide range of them here.
Let’s take some exercises, young Jazz pianists!
Ex. 1. Block Chords
Peterson’s frequent use of block chords always reminded me of the sound of a big band sax section. He often uses seventh, ninth, and especially sixth chords in his right hand, with the top voice doubled in the left hand.
Practice tip: Try playing block chords in every possible inversion to complement the melodic idea at hand.
Ex. 2. Blues
This is a 12-bar blues form in the key of Eb containing left hand bass notes Peterson often used in solo piano performances, and right-hand lines which can be used in a variety of harmonic situations in different keys. Also note the flatted fifth, a key point of tension and release in Peterson’s playing.
Ex. 3. The II-V-I Progression
Peterson always has a way of presenting potent ideas over ii-V-I chord progressions. Many of his phrasings remind me of how a comedian can deliver a powerful punch line at just the right time. Here, we illustrate a few such ii-V-I devices.
Ex. 4. Octave Unisons
This demonstrates Peterson’s trademark unison octave style over a series of dominant chords. These phrasings can be used as single-line runs over chord changes stated in any appropriate situation. Pay special attention to Peterson’s impeccable sense of time, creating musical resolution at the right moment.
Ex. 5. Stride Piano
Here’s another fervent force in Peterson’s music. He uses stride devices often, playing the root on the first beat and the chord on the second beat, or alternating roots and fifths as bass tones and chords on the second and fourth beat, respectively. He also uses the broken tenth in his left hand (breaking up the normally combined stride interval of a tenth) with his right hand soloing over it.
00:41:39 Oh Dey’s so Fresh and Fine 00:42:32 I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ 00:48:53 Medley: The Man I Love / Tenderly / Imagination / I’ll Never Be the Same / Stardust 01:01:54 I’ll Remember April 01:05:59 It Happened in Monterey 01:08:55 Love for Sale
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Dave Brubeck, who passed away on December 5, 2012, just a day shy of his 92nd birthday, was one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. Rhythms of horses’ hooves on the California cattle ranch he grew up on, along with those from water pumps, motors, and various other sources prompted his lifelong fascination with odd time signatures. Brubeck was also exposed to Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, and Ravel, as his mother gave classical piano lessons. Stride, blues, swing, bebop, classical, big block chords, and delicate counterpoint are just some of Brubeck’s signature devices. Let’s “take five” of them for a closer look. . . .
Many of Brubeck’s classic compositions were based on blues progressions, like “Sweet Cleo Brown,” a tribute to one of his great inspirations, blues singer Cleo Brown. Similarly, his solos were often infused with riffs drawn from the blues scale. Ex. 1 is a progression Brubeck typically used to end a blues.
Some of Brubeck’s heroes were renowned for stride piano, like Duke Ellington, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Fats Waller, and Art Tatum. Brubeck’s large hands let him span big block chords with his right hand while playing wide walking tenthswith his left. “It’s a Raggy Waltz” combines elements of stride and ragtime in 3/4 time— one of his first forays into non-4/4 time signatures. Playing in 3/4 also let him superimpose another pulse over the beat—a polyrhythm—as in Ex. 2.
3. Odd time signatures
Brubeck once famously stated, “I don’t think jazz should be in 4/4 time.” His use of metric subdivisions—seen here marked in groups—was the secret ingredient that made odd time signatures sound natural and swinging to the causal listener. These broke up the measure into more digestible rhythmic phrases of (usually) two or three notes. For example, “Take Five” is more accessible when you count its 5/4 time as “one two three, one two.” Exs. 3athrough 3e (left to right) illustrate this approach in various time signatures.
Ex. 4 demonstrates Brubeck’s renowned use of polyrhythms, or playing in more than one rhythm at a time. The rhythmic grouping of five notes in the place of four is distributed between two hands, a technique that’s been picked up by such pianists as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
It was Brubeck’s older brother Howard, chairman of the music department at Palomar Junior College, who first suggested he study with French composer Darius Milhaud. During those studies, Brubeck began experimenting with polytonality—playing in more than one tonality at a time. While Brubeck is well known for his frequent display of fast pyrotechnics and dense textures, Ex. 5 exemplifies his use of space and openness.
New to Brubeck? Here’s some required listening for getting to know his use of odd time signatures.
New Dave Brubeck Biography A Timely Reminder Of Jazz Piano Royalty
‘Dave Brubeck: A Life In Time’ looks at how the pianist’s life criss-crossed with countless jazz greats, and dives into some lesser-known areas of his life.
Pianist David Warren Brubeck was born on 6 December 1920, in Concord, northeast of Oakland, and his centenary year is being recognised with an excellent, impressively detailed biography by Philip Clark (Dave Brubeck: A Life In Time, Da Capo Press), which explores the life and work of the musician, who died in 2012.
Clark spent time on the road with Brubeck and his wife, Iola, in 2003 and the biography contains fascinating new material about a man who pushed the boundaries of jazz for six decades, influencing scores of popular music stars, including Ray Davies of The Kinks, Ray Manzarak of The Doors and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.
Sharp as a tack
Brubeck’s life criss-crossed with countless talented contemporaries and A Life In Time contains a wealth of information about his touring partner Miles Davis (who recorded Brubeck’s song ‘In Your Own Sweet Way’ back in 1957), along with Cecil Taylor, Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, Art Blakey, Lee Konitz, Charlie Parker, Cal Tjader, Lennie Tristano, Jimmy Giuffre, Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan, with whom Brubeck recorded an entire album.
The magnificent ‘Time Out’ and ‘Blue Rondo À La Turk’, both recorded in 1959, brought the Dave Brubeck Quartet international stardom – and they remain two jazz tunes that can be instantly recognised by members of the general public rather than diehard fans.
There are interesting offbeat reminiscences in the biography. Brubeck tells the author that the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce used to babysit his son Darius (who also became a jazz musician) after the musician and comic appeared on the same bill at the Crescendo club in Hollywood. “Lenny and I became good friends,” said Brubeck. “I didn’t expect Lenny and Darius to get close, but they kind of gravitated toward each other and we thought, Well, OK, it’s fine with us if someone wants to take the kids off our hands for the afternoon. And Lenny took it very seriously and was completely responsible, I have to say.”
Compared to the drug-taking excesses of some of his fellow jazz men, Brubeck seemed deeply conventional, but he was as sharp as a tack. He is quoted warning about gangsters who “worm their way past your defences”, adding that “Charlie Parker’s a sad example of what could happen” when people exploit the addictions of musicians.
Defiant in the face of racism
There are tales of Brubeck’s groundbreaking tours in the late 50s – he went to Poland and caught dysentery in Baghdad – and a moving account of his defiant attitude towards racism during an era of segregation. In 1960 he cancelled a promotional appearance on NBC’s hugely popular Bell Telephone Hour Show because the producers insisted that black bass player Eugene Wright would have to be out of shot.
In 1964, Brubeck also openly defied the Ku Klux Klan at a gig held at the systematically racist University Of Alabama. Brubeck insisted that the band and audience be integrated – and he defied threats of violence and disruption from the KKK to play the concert to a mixed audience. The stand forced the university to allow integrated concerts from then on.
Two giants of jazz – Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – come out well in the book. Brubeck admired Armstrong and wrote a musical for him called The Real Ambassadors. Brubeck could not get word direct to the famous trumpeter so waited outside his Chicago hotel room to ask him to take part in a production of the show. “Eventually a waiter turned up with a tray of food, and when Louis opened and saw me there, he gave me a big smile and told the waiter that Mr Brubeck would be having the same as him – so one more steak, please,” the pianist recalled.
Armstrong happily agreed to the project, a matter of lasting pride to Brubeck, who had grown up admiring the trumpeter as well as pianists such as Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson, who were Satchmo’s contemporaries.
A move into composing
Though Brubeck is associated with Colombia Records, A Life In Time tells the fascinating story of his move to Decca Records – and why he chose to move to that famous label in 1968 to record his extended choral and orchestral albums The Light In The Wilderness and The Gates Of Justice. “Now that Brubeck was interested in pursuing a career as a composer, he felt that Columbia had let him down,” writes Clark.
Some of the music Decca recorded was composed by Brubeck in tribute to his nephew Philip, who had died from a brain tumour at 16. Columbia executive Teo Macero was upset to lose one of their top jazz stars, but he admitted in a company memo in October 1968 that Decca were “doing more” for Brubeck as a label – and talked wistfully about the merits of Blue Note and Verve in the jazz field.
Brubeck went on composing, recording and performing for the next four decades before dying on 5 December 2012, a day before his 92nd birthday, on the way to a cardiology appointment. He left a magnificent jazz legacy that is well served by Clark’s impressive book.
Dave Brubeck: A Life In Time, by Philip Clark, is published on 18 February 2020 by Da Capo Press in the US and Headline in the UK.