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Thelonious Monk in 1967.

Jazz piano is a collective term for the techniques pianists use when playing Jazz. By extension the word can refer to the same techniques on any keyboard instrument. The piano has been an integral part of the jazz idiom since its inception, in both solo and ensemble settings. It's role is one of the most multifaceted, largely due to the instrument's combined melodic and harmonic nature. For this reason it is also an important tool in the understanding of jazz theory and arranging for jazz musicians and composers. Along with the guitar, Vibraphone, and other keyboard instruments, the piano is one of the few instruments in a jazz combo which can play chords, rather than single notes only as with the saxophone or trumpet.



Jazz chord voicings are one of the building blocks of learning jazz piano. Jazz piano playing uses all of the same chords found in Western art music, such as major, minor, augmented, diminished, seventh, diminished seventh, sixth, minor seventh, major seventh, sus 4, and so on. The second skill of importance is learning how to play with a swing rhythm. The next step is improvisation - making something up on the spot; this takes tremendous skill and one has to know one's way around the piano. Piano as an instrument offers soloists an exhaustive number of choices. One could use the bass register to play an ostinato pattern, such as those found in boogie-woogie, or a melodic counterline emulating the walking of an upright bass. In a style known as Stride piano the left hand alternates positions rapidly playing notes in the bass register and chords in the tenor register. This is also done in more syncopated variants. The right hand will often play melodic lines, but might also play harmonic content, chordally or in octaves, sometimes in lockstep with the Left Hand using a technique called "Lock Hand" voicing, which was often used by George Shearing.


Solo performance

One of the most important things in jazz piano is keeping good time, and knowing the form of a tune so well that it becomes second nature. But solo jazz piano presents another basic problem. The pianist has to accomplish three basic objectives. These three elements contribute to the compliment sometimes paid to a very good solo pianist, that he "sounds like two or more cats (musicians) playing together." This is a general impression, however, that has different forms, for example, in the sound of Dave McKenna it is known as "three-handed swing":

1) Provide a clear, swinging pulse. This might be attempted by striking a beat with the right hand just after a weaker beat with the left hand. The aim of this is to imitate a ride cymbal, or a walking bass, or both.

While many jazz players do this habitually with two hands, it can also be accomplished in the left hand alone, by imitating the weaker note of a bass player just before he strikes some of the notes of the bassline. That is to say, in the bass a pianist can play the main notes of the line almost all with the thumb, while using the other fingers for the shorter or "flagged" note. The swing bass line, then, may be considered merely a series of quarter notes, but with the in-between notes included it is a dotted or triplet rhythm. It is almost never written down this way, however, perhaps because the in-between notes are not constant on a bass, but are "ghosted." This is where the solo pianists' imitation of the ride cymbal becomes somewhat ambiguous. In order to outline the entire rhythm, he may need to play more in-between bass notes than an actual bass player would. This may blur the line between what stands for ride cymbal and bass, and contributes to the cascade of swing that characterizes solo jazz piano (and the guitar as well).

Playing the bass line this way reveals that the left hand is ideally shaped for its role.

At faster tempos, the weaker notes may not be present in the bassline, while still being constantly played by the drummer's ride cymbal.

2) State the harmony or "guide tones" of the chord changes.

3) Play the melody or melodic solo material with the right hand.

It is challenging but possible to meet all these demands simultaneously, and in addition there can be brief intervals where they are not quite being met (Art Tatum for example did not stride as constantly as he could have). For example, tasks 2) and 3) often merge into one where the guide tones (the third and seventh of each change) are played in the right hand, in a harmonized melody or solo line.

One commonly used method for solving the tripartite problem is to hold the hands together in a shape like a "fork," with the fingers nearest the thumbs joining the thumbs to form a central group, while the fourth and fifth fingers spread outward to form branches on either side. Many jazz pianists play by placing this shape on the keyboard, and using the left branch to play bass notes, the middle to attend to guide tones and the right branch for upper lines.

If this method does not prove feasible, however, it is also possible, and simpler, to elaborate the bassline, while taking over all the guide-tone and melodic tasks with the right hand alone. Barry Harris may favor this method, as he speaks against playing chords with the left hand as an oversimplified habit, preferring to state harmonies with the right hand often. Usually when you play solo you will play chords or a walking bass with your left hand and improvise with your right.

Ensemble role

The role of the piano in the context of ensemble accompaniment has gradually changed from a time-keeping role consisting of repetitive left-hand figures to a more flexible one where the pianist is free to choose to interact with the soloist using both short and sustained chordal and melodic fragments. This form of accompaniment is known as comping.

The piano has always been a leading part in jazz. In the very beginning, black jazz musicians played ragtime on the piano. As the genre of jazz progressed, the piano was featured in what is known as the rhythm section of the jazz band. The rhythm section often includes a piano, guitar, bass, drums, and other instruments (such as the vibraphone). Popular jazz pianists such as Duke Ellington, who became famous during the Harlem Renaissance at the Cotton Club, were responsible for comping. Comping is the process by which a pianist plays an accompanying part made up primarily of chords so that other instrumentalists can solo. Jazz piano moved away from playing a leading melody to providing a foundation for a song. However, jazz pianists were also given the chance to solo. In the 1940s and 1950s, a number of great piano players emerged. Pianists like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell helped create the music of bebop. Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, and Herbie Hancock were three exceptional pianists who played with Miles Davis. Tommy Flanagan was also featured by John Coltrane on his hit album Giant Steps.

Circle of Fifths

The circle of fifths (or Cycle of Fifths) is very important in jazz piano as it provides harmonic diversity through a harmonic movement in fifths (or fourths). Usually during the last four bars of a jazz melody or melodic section, the chord progression is "III, VI, II, V, I." 3, 6, 2, and 5 as scale degrees correspond to the last four steps in the cycle leading to the tonic.

To any listener, a well-placed transitional harmony sounds correct, whereas a skilled piano player recognizes it as a step in the circle of fifths. In jazz music often there is one chord change per bar. In the simplest example, two bars of the same tonic chord would be played instead as "I - V / I." This same back-and-forth example is often applied, where a pause or shift of direction is evident in the tune. Further use of the circle is a matter of counting several steps ahead, or backwards from the tonic chord as a goal, perhaps like a runner counting steps toward a long jump. After some practice it becomes second nature.

Another advantage of the circle of fifths is that it enhances the ability to transpose a song, for which not all pianists have an equal natural gift. In chord "planing" or shifting a chord, often voiced in fourths, up the scale, there is often a repeated harmonic pattern of one-five-one-five (tonic-dominant-tonic-dominant).

One can use the circle of fifths to harmonize a tune, such as "Autumn Leaves" or "Summertime", tunes without complex melodic lines or lines having a few repeated shapes. This does not mean arranging new chords according to the circle for the entire tune. Rather, it means the insertion periodically of one-five progressions that are fragments of the circle of fifths, where it makes an appropriate transition, or for several bars. In many jazz standards, this technique can be applied more continuously and makes for excellent reharmonization. In tunes such as Stella By Starlight, the circle of fifths is at least useful between most changes.


See also


  • The Jazz Piano Book by Mark Levine: A "how to" book on the subject.
  • Metaphors For The Musician by Randy Halberstadt: Insights into almost every aspect of jazz piano.
  • Stylistic II/V7/I Voicings For Keyboardists by Luke Gillespie: Covers all styles of comping, from basic and fundamental approaches to modern.
  • Forward Motion by Hal Galper: An approach to Jazz Phrasing.
  • Jazz Piano: The Left Hand by Riccardo Scivales (Bedford Hills, New York, Ekay Music, 2005): A method covering all the left hand techniques used in jazz piano (and also a study of the history of the Left Hand in Jazz Piano), with hundreds of musical examples.
  • "The Jazz Musician's Guide to Creative Practicing" by David Berkman: Covers the problems of jazz improvisational practice with a focus on the piano, but for all instruments. (Also, it's entertaining and humorous).

External links


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