Topics specifically about the piano and pianists.

Jan 162011

Ihe sheet music excerpt below is the first few bars of the tune “On Green Dolphin Street”. Take a look at the last two measures before the final C chord (measures 9 and 10). The chord symbols say Dm7 and G7, or ii7-V7. Usually, in fake or real books, these are the chords you play (not what I put in the bass clef). In an actual playing situation, you certainly wouldn’t want to play the bridge the way I’ve suggested each time–it would get old very fast. Like spoken language, the more ways you can say the same thing, the more fluent you are with your vocabulary. In many cases, the dm7/G7  is just a subdivision of on what could be G7 for 2 measures. Here, those 2 measures are functioning as Dominant harmony. For a moment, leave the bass line out of the analysis, as it is just walking up from D to G. The inner 3 voices in the bass clef, have a similar pattern as the whole-note walk down in the post Alternative Voicing for Piano (1). The difference is that here they are moving up in minor thirds every other beat. They are, again, simple major triads in 2nd inversion, falling on the downbeats. On the offbeats, the chords follow the same pattern again as in the post Alternative Voicing for Piano (1). If you care to analyze deeper, beat 3 of measure 9 is an implied G7#9. Beat 1 of measure 10 is a G7b9+11 (aka Db/G7). Beat 3, measure 10 is a G13b9 (easy to do on a guitar, as well)..

The song is usually played with latin beat through the A section, and swing for the bridge (at the Dm7). Also, the bridge continues with a parallel section in the key of Eb (not shown).


Jan 142011
One of the top swing-based pianists of the past 25 years

One of the top swing-based pianists of the past 25 years

Dave McKenna (1930 – 2008) is the undisputed master of left hand bass for jazz pianists. What he did with his left hand was much deeper than just that. He changed the function of the left hand often in his playing. His right hand was also exceptionally fluid and had a beautiful tone as if he were playing Chopin.

In the following video clip, he plays “Lulu’s Back in Town”. You can observe how he changes the function of his left hand. Towards the end of the clip, he modulates six times through increasingly ascending keys.

Here he plays “Serenade in Blue”. The camera is always on his hands. You’ll see that he has incredible economy of motion. He plays block chords, left hand bass, left hand “strumming” chords and so on. The secret to his “feel” is when he phrases the melody behind the beat, as singers often do, and plays bass on the beat and chords slightly ahead of the beat.

McKenna knew by heart something like a kabillion songs, and he could play them in any key. He often played medleys, with song-to-song connections ranging from the obvious to the somewhat obscure, but based around a theme. Here he is playing a Rodgers and Hart medley.

Dave McKenna on Wikipedia

Jan 112011
The Young Glen Gould

The Young Glen Gould

“The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations.The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” – Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982) Genius, articulate, reclusive, asperger’s syndrome/OCD, 4-time Grammy winner, writer, documentarian, iconoclast, alchemist, and revolutionary. He is, or has been called all of those things. He used to stay up all night and play piano and then call friends on the phone. He enthusiastically embraced recording technology. Continue reading »

Jan 042011

Marcus Roberts, Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies, Florida State University

Marcus Roberts (1963 – ) was born blind and studied music and piano at the Florida School For the Deaf and Blind, the same school Ray Charles attended. He later was discovered by Wynton Marsalis, and they went on to do a number of collaborative projects. He has recorded many albums, both solo and in other varieties of musical settings.

Most of these pay homage to the great American composers of the past such as Ellington, Gershwin, Monk, Porter, etc. [button]Read More…[button]His recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is unlike any other recording I’ve ever heard of the same piece.

Gershwin wrote the piece for piano and small jazz band. He enlisted Ferde Grofe to orchestrate it, and it is written for full orchestra. Of course, the piano part is fully written out, and most all performances and recordings are of this version. That is, played in the “classical” vein where you do not change the score, you only interpret it. However, Gershwin’s roots were informed by the music of  jazz, pop, and stage. Gershwin’s mission was to write music that would fuze jazz and classical music together.

Unlike these other recordings, Marcus Roberts’ version takes many liberties with the score. He will include his jazz trio (with bass and drums) along with the orchestra. During piano solos, he will take extended flights of fancy, acknowledging the written themes, and extending or modifying them. He ad-libs; The version you’ll hear in the clip below is certainly not a note for note replay of the Robert’s recording. The orchestra has been silent during these interludes, and the cues for them to re-enter are both dramatic and pleasing.

In this video, the expressions you see on Seigii Ozawa’s face are well worth the price of admission.

Marcus Roberts Plays Rhapsody in Blue With Seijii Ozawa

This next part picks up where the first part left off, at the beginning of the E major “pretty part” (that’s a technical term). During his improv, you can see the members of the orchestra and band smiling, probably because it’s not known what he’s going to do next. For example, he quotes an extensive passage of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”; later, he goes into a quasi stride piano part during part of his solo. The fact that there are quotes and improvisation is not the interesting thing. It’s how well he makes it work, blending in an out of what’s written, or hinting at it.

Marcus Roberts on Wikipedia

Dec 152010

Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall

Lang Lang (1982 – ) classical pianist, seems to have been “on a roll” since birth. He is a superstar in the world of classical music. In China, much of the youth culture really loves classical music. I have seen the video where Lang Lang returns to Beijing triumphantly from the studying and touring in the U.S. It was reminiscent of the Beatles arriving in the U.S. at the height of their popularity.

Although some critics have panned him in various ways, audiences go wild over his often sold out performance. Major conductors such as Christof Eschenbach, Daniel Barenboim, Seijii Ozawa, and Zubin Mehta have either championed him or sought him out.

In the following video clip, he plays a Chopin etude in E Major. Towards the end, he plays so quietly and delicately that it seems to transcend possibility of how this can be done. Although he is quite unlike Glenn Gould, he seems to share the tendency to rotate his body in a clockwise motion.

This if from a DVD of his Carnegie Hall debut. Here he plays Liszt’s “Liebestraum” as one of the encore pieces.

Here is evidence of what he might do at a concert, not your father’s concert. He plays “Flight of the Bumblebee” on an iPad, just for fun.

Lang Lang’s website

Lang Lang on Wikipedia

Dec 132010

George Shearing, The Dean of MusicaUnderstatement

(The ingredients for a great performance are) a good audience, a good piano, and a good physical feeling, which is not available to every soul, every day of everyone’s life.

Your intent, then, is to speak to your audience in a language you know, to try to communicate in a way that will bring to them as good a feeling as you have yourself,” – George Shearing

George Shearing (1919 – 2011) pianist, composer, emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1947. At that time, his musicianship was fully developed, and he was quite accomplished. When people speak of the “Shearing Sound” they are referring to the sound of his quintet. The quintet lived from the late 1940’s for about a decade. It was a huge success. If you are unsure as to what that is, when you here it, you will recognize it. It was and continues to be copied seemingly ad infinitum. Unfortunately, “muzak” was provided with a lot of fodder for bad copycat sound.

This style of piano playing uses block chords, which he has attributed to pianist Milt Buckner. These block chords are 5-note chords where the melody is played in octaves, and the chord is formed with the 3 inner voices. The left hand plays the thumb on the lower octave of the melody, (when on the white notes).

The right hand thumb is directly next to the left hand, usually a half or whole step up. This “Shearing Voicing” has been called “locked hands”. The inner voices can be diatonic or every other chord diminished, as you traverse the scale. Since they are 5 note chords, they are usually the triad with major or minor 7th, or 2nd or 6th added.

A number of internet tutorials are incorrect, as far as the “pure” Shearing block chord. The following is not one of those. Dick Hyman has a number of tutorials on the internet. To see his tutorial on block chords, click here. When done, hit your browser’s Back button.

The “Shearing Sound” was the above described piano, along with vibraphone playing the melody in octaves, and the guitar playing usually the upper octave melody. The bass part was written out because the harmony was precise and complex, and the drums usually played brushes.

Here is the quintet playing “I’ll Be Around”

Shearing was known for his unusual, and very impressionist treatments of songs when playing solo piano. Here is an early example where he play’s Gershwin’s Summertime.

Here is a later example. This song, “I Cover the Waterfront” was done by Billie Holiday, and just about everyone else, usually in a jazz style. This video is unabashedly impressionistic. Influences of Debussy, Satie, and Ravel can be heard. He even quotes a bit from a Debussy piece at about 3:38. In other works, he has quoted Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and others. When he does, the quote fits in as if it were written that way.

He was a huge influence on jazz and jazz piano players.

I consider him one of the greatest musical minds I’ve ever been around. In the ’50s, George paved the way for me and the (Modern Jazz Quartet), and even today jazz players, especially pianists, are indebted to him. – Dave Brubeck

John Pizzarelli, who recorded 2002’s “The Rare Delight of You” with the George Shearing Quintet, said,

The Shearing sound is something that lives on ad infinitum. There’s definitely a George Shearing style on the piano that really is hard to copy but we do it all the time,” he said. “It’s still something that’s employed by groups when they’re arranging things. They’ll say, ‘Well wait a minute. We’ll do something like Shearing in the middle.”

In 2007, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth !!. George Shearing died on February 14, 2011, Here are two very informative obituaries:

The U.K. Guardian obituary

New York Times Tributes
George Shearing on Wikipedia

Dec 022010

Art Tatum, Unchallenged Virtuoso of Jazz Piano

Art Tatum (1909 – 1956), partially blind from childhood, was active in recording from the 1930’s through the about 1956, when he passed. His virtuosity has been compared to Franz List and Paganinni. All the well known classical pianists of the times, such as Artur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz, as well as Bernstein, Gershwin, and Godowsky  came out to hear him. Horowitz even did a transcription of Tea For Two. Continue reading »

Dec 022010

Dick Hyman, Educator and Master of All Jazz Styles

Dick Hyman (1927 – ) is at the top of the food chain for working New York Pianists. He has had a very long recording career, including TV and movies (You hear him playing piano or directing music in a lot of Woody Allen movies). He can play just about anything in any style, and has recorded tributes to a lot of the great pianists of the past, e.g., Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and so on. He may be under-rated because he didn’t compose a lot, didn’t invent a new way of playing that was influential to other pianists, and was not an iconoclast like say, Miles Davis, or McCoy Tyner. Continue reading »

Jan 012010

Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson, Canadian Hero and Virtuoso Jazz Pianist

Technique is something you use to make your ideas listenable…You learn to play the instrument so you have a musical vocabulary, and you practice to get your technique to the point you need to express yourself, depending on how heavy your ideas are”. – Oscar Peterson.

Oscar Peterson (1925 – 2007) was one of the greatest jazz pianists ever. He is the only jazz pianist of the contemporary era who can claim to be the heir of the great pianist Art Tatum. Although steeped in the jazz tradition, he studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt, an encouraged his students to study Bach.

He has one numerous awards: Eight Grammys including the Lifetime Achievement Award; the Toronto Arts Festival Lifetime Achievement Award; The BBC-Radio Lifetime Achievement Award, at least 16 honorary University Degrees, and much more.

In the following video clip, Oscar plays the song, “I Can’t Get Started”, solo piano. After having gone through a rubato introduction, at about 1:15 he goes into an moderate jazz tempo. Then at about 3:00 he more or less double-times it. At 4:00 minutes the camera catches a good view of his hands, doing one of his characteristic double-octave ad-lib single line solos.

Here is a transcription you can watch while Oscar plays Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Goin’ On?” In several places you can hear and see his double octave runs.

Read about Oscar Peterson on Wikipedia