In video lesson 24 of Learn Jazz Piano I focus on how songwriters employ ‘sweet notes’ to add that spine tingling effect to their melody. I then relate this to jazz improvisation and show you how to employ this technique in your solos.
Here’s an extract from chapter 10 of my eBook ‘How To Solo’, where I deal with this essential topic. To purchase the book follow this link.
Here are two tunes that target sweet notes to great effect.
In the first eight bars of Victor Young’s Beautiful Love each sweet note occurs on beat 1 and above the chord.
The table below describes the function of each boxed note in relation to its chord.
Blue In Green, credited to Miles Davis but probably composed by Bill Evans, has a cyclical structure that never seems to resolve. I recommend that you first revisit this tune by listening to track 3 of the Miles Davis album: Kind Of Blue.
In the following example, rather than writing out the complete melody, I’ve illustrated just the target notes, plus a suggested left-hand accompaniment.
Table showing sweet notes
The video for this lesson will be available very soon.
Here are 12 essential tips to learn jazz piano soloing.
(This is an extract from my forthcoming book: Learn jazz Piano, book 4: How To Solo.)
1) Chords belong to families.
A chord rarely exists in it’s own right and is far more likely to have a relationship within a family. It has usually come into being as a result of the chord that precedes it and then exerts a powerful influence over the chord that follows it. This is cause and effect.
So, rather than treating each chord individually, try to see the whole picture.
Chords form into sequences that often belong to one key centre.
If you can identify a group of chords you can then play a line through that sequence.
Once you begin to recognize these sequences and start stringing them together you will grasp the map of a tune.
2) Threes and sevens
Your lines should be largely defined by the 3’s and 7’s within each chord. This is particularly relevant for dominant 7 chords but also applicable when a minor chord functions as II or VI. By identifying these notes ‘on the fly’ your solos will make far more sense harmonically.
3) Barlines don’t exist
Barlines are not signposts ordering you to stop and start. If you have a secure inner pulse and can feel where beat 1 is, you can then drive through barlines rather letting them dictate.
4) Your left hand isn’t a marker
If your chords are still mainly coming down on beat 1, then it’s likely that your left hand is serving little musical purpose. Both hands should be contributing creatively.
5) Know your ‘ands’.
Where do your phrases begin and end? Rather than always starting on beats 1, 2, 3 and 4, launch your phrase from the ands of these beats
6) Swing 8s.
There needs to be a constant feel of swing 8s, whether ore not you are actually playing them. They are always there ‘in the ether.’
7) Play from tension into release.
A dominant 7 chord contains tension, which is released on arrival at the tonic. Therefore your phrase peaks and then falls. Once you’ve plateaued at the tonic you could take a breath, as there may be less or nothing to say.
8) Invention, not regurgitation
Improvisation is about creation and exploration, not the reuse of ready-made phrases and licks. Play with a fresh and open mind as though you are discovering and exploring the piece for the first time. The more your mind is racing with scales, modes and altered chords the less room there will be for spontaneous creativity.
There should be some feeling of risk, as though walking a tightrope. Your safety net is the work that you’ve already put it. Now it’s time to let go. When you are in the zone, you are doing something very special: you are composing in the moment and this should be exciting and exhilarating. Your solo should feel like newly discovered terrain rather than a well-trodden path.
9) Develop your ideas
Study the structure of a good song. It will begin with a strong idea and then repeat and develop this idea melodically and rhythmically. The same applies to soloing. Sometimes simplicity can be more effective than a flurry of ideas. Avoid the temptation to start your solo with all guns blazing.
10) Employ dynamics
As in any composition, there are many types of musical expression that can be applied to your solo.
Employ a variety of accents on both notes and chords.
Vary your volume.
Move between legato and staccato.
11) No sheet music
Sheet music is just information and the sooner you discard it, the better. Looking at a sheet of paper is yet another distraction from the job in hand. Music is an aural, not visual activity.
12 )Play with others
Yes, I’ve said it before, but books, videos and backing tracks will only get you so far. The majority of improvised music is played with other musicians. Do whatever it takes to meet like-minded players, whatever their experience or instrument. It is by listening and interacting with others that moves your playing forward.
If you don’t have books 1 – 3 of Learn Jazz Piano you can buy them by following this link
Here are 10 more jazz tunes you need to be familiar with. Although they are all popular, the two essential songs are ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘All The Things You Are.’
The best way to learn jazz standards is to identify the map, in other words, spot the key centres. Autumn Leaves only has two, but All The Things You Are moves through no less than five keys!
I have produced two video lessons based on Autumn Leaves.
So here are the new songs to add to your repertoire. Remember to commit at least some of them to memory. The less energy you spend reading the music, the more creative space is opened up for improvisation.
I receive many enquiries from people who want to start jazz piano lessons but I take on only about 10% of them. So why do I turn away so many potential students?
One of the first questions I ask is ‘Do you listen to jazz?’ and if the answer is ‘no’ then my interest quickly wanes. This may sound obvious, but to play jazz one needs a feel for the music and this is acquired by listening to it. I can teach you the chords, scales etc, but I can’t teach you to swing. Yes, I can explain the theory, but swing is not a concept. You may be able to play a tritone substitution, but if you don’t swing, then you’re not playing jazz. I recently took on a man in his 80’s. He’d never played jazz but because he’d been listening to it all his life there was a swing feel in his playing from the start. Conversely, I’ve worked with new jazz students of a high classical standard but who always sounded ‘straight’ in their playing. So my first point is that in order to get swing into your bones you need to expose yourself to the great jazz masters.
Here’s the second answer that deters me from taking on a new student. When I ask ‘Why do you want to start jazz piano lessons’ and the answer is ‘to sound jazzy’ I’m ready to put the phone down. Sounding jazzy is all about playing funky chords and hot licks, neither of which I’m prepared to teach. I turned pro in 1967 and for many years played Hammond organ in soul bands. People said that I sounded ‘jazzy’ but I really wasn’t playing jazz. In the 70’s I was playing in what was then known as ‘jazz rock bands’ but again there wasn’t much jazz involved. Even now, when I catch myself consciously trying to create a jazz sound in my playing, I hear the words of Howard Riley, one of my old teachers, saying ‘don’t play jazzy, just play.’ Once you are consciously trying to create recognisable sounds and phrases you’re on the slippery slope of approximating your music rather than staying within it and being true to yourself.
And this leads me to style.
When I ask a potential student why they want to start jazz piano lessons and their answer is that they want to play in the style of, say, Bill Evans, I revert to my grumpy old man mode and reply that I don’t teach styles. And there is no better witness for my defence than the great man himself. Just Google ‘Bill Evans interview’ on YouTube and you’ll hear him say ‘Jazz is not so much a style as a spontaneous creative process.’ If we are really playing in the moment, expressing ourselves and how we feel, this is authenticity and has nothing to do with style. Yes, we are all subconsciously influenced by all that has gone before, but are then bringing all this life experience into present moment to create something new. It should be like walking a tightrope; we are on an exploration. What has this to do with style? As much as I love Evans, Jarrett and Monk, I have no wish to sound like them.
So… listen to great players to get swing into your bones and don’t try to sound ‘jazzy.’ By expressing yourself you will be playing jazz.
I begin with my favourite jazz musician of all time: John Coltrane, and to chose just one album is almost impossible. However, it has to be a recording with McCoy Tyner, The obvious choice would be A Love Supreme, but I’ve chosen My Favourite Things because you can hear his approach to standards.
For the same reason, I’ve chosen Herby Hancock’s The New Standard.
Chic Corea’s output has been and continues to be varied in genre but Acoustic Band gives you an insight into his approach to standards like Autumn Leaves and So In Love.
Exactly the same goes for Keith Jarrett. His standards trio, for me, has never been bettered.
Three ways to study jazz piano are playing, studying and listening.
Playing: I can only continue to encourage you to seek out other musicians. One of the best ways to study jazz piano is by playing with other people, whether with friends, with your teacher, at an evening class or summer school etc etc. Whatever gets you beyond just sitting at home and playing to backing tracks, the interaction and communication with other musicians is essential.
Studying: Hopefully, my learn jazz piano course and eBooks are helping you, but there is an ever growing number of resources now on the internet. Studying, of course, includes practice, and this doesn’t just mean strolling through your favourite tunes and licks!
Listening: This brings us to today’s blog. How much jazz are you listening to? In a way, this is the easiest way to learn jazz piano, as you don’t need to be doing anything consciously. Just letting the music in without trying to analyse it will really inform your playing. Before I give you my recommendations, here are two pieces of advice:
Firstly, don’t just listen to the music you like. For years, I steered clear of 20’s and 30’s jazz, considering it old fashioned. Big mistake! You can learn just as much listening to Lois Armstrong as John Coltrane.
Secondly, don’t just listen to jazz pianists because that’s your instrument. Listen to how, for example, great sax improvisers fashion their phrases.
So here’s the first in a series of recommendations. You’ll find the full list in book 3 of my Learn Jazz Piano eBook. Here’s the link to my books:
Two facts: for over 40 years, while learning about jazz piano, I have been making my living as a professional keyboard player and piano teacher, and yet failed all my music exams at secondary school.
Ear not eye: a guide for learning about jazz piano
I’m sure that this failure was partly due to the arrogance of being a typical teenager. I remember making it clear to my beleaguered music teacher that I preferred listening to my Ray Charles records than being forced to study the harmony of Bach. But by the age of 16, when I was already playing Hammond organ in rock bands, music at school had no relevance to me. Although I had learned to read music from private piano teachers, this skill had no place in the environment of a rock band. Tunes were learned not from sheet music, but by listening to records and then transcribing the chords.
Here’s me in the mid 60’s playing organ in an R&B band at some London club.
Many years later, when employed as a musical director and theatre composer, my chequered musical education became both a hindrance and blessing. I was now not only surrounded by classically trained musicians, but actually in charge of them. Then suddenly, during a rehearsal of one of my compositions, this uncomfortable situation was turned on its head, when I made the following, seemingly outrageous suggestion to the musicians:
“I haven’t written out this arrangement. Here’s the chord chart. Let’s just improvise and see what emerges!”
In that moment, as I witnessed classically trained musicians freeze at the very mention of the word ‘improvise,’ I recognised the true value of my improvisational skills. The realisation that I possessed a skill that ‘straight’ musicians didn’t have turned my musical life around. It was this moment that ultimately led to my current profession, which is to teach jazz piano to classical and ‘straight’ pianists.
I possess what is known as ‘a good ear.’ When I hear a tune or song, I’m usually able to identify its chord sequence and translate this to the piano. My ‘good ear’ is not a talent I was born with, but a skill that has been developed over the years when accompanying singers and transcribing chords from records.
So here’s the irony: Yes, I would dearly love to play a faultless, exquisite rendition of a Beethoven sonata. But, equally, many classically trained pianists would pay money (and do pay me!) just to sit at the piano and play a 12-bar blues or solo over the chords of a Gershwin tune.
Clearly, there is a middle ground; for any musician, both these skills are invaluable. But if I were to fight my own corner, I’d state the following. Playing music is an aural activity, rather than visual: it requires the ear rather than the eye. Sheet music is just the information. Whether interpreting a Chopin Nocturne or a pop song, we need to grasp the harmonic journey rather than just typing out the notes. And we grasp this harmonic construction with our ‘musician’s ears.’
But this is more than just a theory to ponder; you can work on developing this skill right now, by testing yourself with a simple children’s song or Christmas carol.
Try identifying the chord changes, then translating them to the piano. Begin by just spotting the tonic to dominant movement: this is chord 1 to chord 5.
Now add chord 4, the subdominant.
In the key of F major the sequence I – IV – V is simply C – F – G.
If you can recognise the movement between these three chords you have already decoded thousands of 50’s pop songs.
In summary: stop relying on the music and start using your ear. Perhaps it’s time you were learning jazz piano!
Paul Abrahams at Learning Jazz Piano Online
If you are a classical pianist learning about jazz piano, the above article, that I wrote for the website www.pianoplayingadvice.com may help you.
Because this book is primarily concerned with soloing over chords, I’ll start with the chord that seems to be everywhere: the seventh. I suggest that it is often written and used incorrectly. This is of great importance to you when you’re playing from a chord chart or lead sheet. A jazz lead sheet seems to be littered with 7 chords: major 7, minor 7, dominant 7, diminished 7. In most cases it is there for a good reason, with each note serving a harmonic purpose. But there are times when naming a chord as a seventh is misleading. The problem arises when we consider the most important harmony notes within a chord: the two notes that identify it. These two notes, sometimes described as guide tones, are usually 3 and 7, because in most instances they serve a vital harmonic function. 3 tells us whether the chord is major or minor, then 7 completes the picture. Example C + E + G + Bb Note E is a major 3rd. Note Bb is a minor 7. Therefore the chord is C7 (i.e. C dominant 7). 5 is of much less harmonic importance. If it were omitted in the above example, the chord would still clearly be a dominant 7. Here is a VI – II – V – I sequence. Each chord has just three voices. Notice that the first three chords, although described as 7, don’t require 5 to establish their identity. What they do require are 3s and 7s. Notice how each 3 becomes a 7 without needing to move, while each 7 becomes a 3 by moving down a half step. Fig 1
Now look closely at the final, tonic chord and how it is approached by its dominant 7. The 3 of G7 moves up a half step, but to the 1 of the C triad. This final tonic chord does not require a 7 in order to establish its harmony. And here lies the problem. Perhaps out of habit, perhaps out of laziness, this chord is often still written as a major 7. Fig 2 This final chord could be Cmaj7, but it can equally be C6 or just a C triad. Don’t assume that you are obliged to play a 7 just because the lead sheet states maj7. The scale of C major will work over all these variations, because the chord is essentially a major triad. So play the chord that suits your purposes. Another scale that will work here is the Lydian Dominant, but I’ll examine this in chapter 3.
Learning Jazz piano book 4 should be ready sometime in 2014.