Learning From the Best

In this entry, I will highlight what makes a great jazz pianist. Is it speed? Is it life experiences? Is it training? Is it what you listen to? Is it age? Is it sightreading ability? Is it IQ?

Actually, it is a combination of these, but the IQ one is just a joke. Music and the rhythm of jazz is in everybody, no matter how 'clever' you may or may not be intellectually. In fact, a lot of the greatest jazz pianists (and musicians of other instruments) dropped out of school to persue a jazz career (as in Oscar Peterson, and he didn't turn out too badly).

Let's look at the backgrounds of a few of my favourite jazz pianists so that I can highlight what I love particularly about their style, along with a few technicalities about their playing so that you may perhaps try it out yourself.

Oscar Peterson

My goodness. Oscar Peterson. The astonishing, mind-boggling, amazing and incomparable OP. A legend of jazz if there ever was one. He could almost be called the 'Liszt' of jazz piano.

OP came from a musical family in Montreal, Canada. Fortunately, he moved away from the trumpet and continued his piano studies. His sister was one of his teachers but more important was Paul de Marky who was a student of a student of Liszt. You see? Every great pianist eventually traces back to the Master.

This gentleman taught OP greater finger control and velocity at the piano. He used Debussy studies for this. He could see early on OP's obvious brilliance in improvisation and encouraged him strongly to persue this style and ability. Thank goodness he did.

The special day was when OP's father gave him an ultimatum: if you want to drop out of school to become a jazz pianist, you shall not be just another jazz pianist, you shall become THE best jazz piansit of them all...

So he did.

He recorded so, so many records, toured almost everywhere in the world and dazzled people with his speed, his blues playing and his elegance in solo piano. Nobody had ever played with such flair and depth as he did.

What Can We Learn from OP?

First, practice. Second, practice with a classical piano repertoire. This cannot be highlighted enough. Classical training and classical repertoire gives your fingers one heck of a workout. Jazz does not offer the opportunity to practice fingerwork since it expects you to improvise with your own existing abilities; you can't use jazz to enhance your finger strength; this would come from studying a Chopin ├ętude or something by Liszt or Rachmaninov.

As you enter the world of jazz, (of course using my own jazz eBook: A Philosophical Approach to Jazz Piano), you will begin to develop a repertoire and an awareness of and memory of chord progressions. On top of these changes, you will improvise but, unfortunately, without finger dexterity and keyboard awareness, your improvisations will not be very exciting.

OP teaches us to practice for many hours a day if possible, even 10 hours a week (I do about 6-8 a day on a mix of classical, jazz, technical exercises and a spot of composition), and in this practice, to listen to as much jazz piano as possible. Try to follow particular passages, even only 50% of it if its too complicated, just to get a feel for what is possible.

We can also learn from OP how to introduce and close a song. He always had the most unbelievable intros and outros and they were either incredibly bluesy or incredibly romantic and lush. From him, through listening, try to introduce a song in a particular way using various techniques you hear him play. Do the same for outros.

Diana Krall

Diana Krall has had a meteoric career. She started out playing in the school band and then got a scholarship to Berkley in NYC. From here, she got to play with Ray Brown (who was an exceptionally brilliant Bass player with OP!) and record her first albums.

Her earlier jazz trio stuff was excellent. There are some brilliant recordings of her (video) playing some excellent jazz solos but, for me, in the last perhaps 5 years, her stuff has become more 'pop-y' and mainstream rather than traditional jazz club trio, which I think is a shame because she's such a great improviser.

Her style is very interesting. She comps with her left hand a lot and uses a lot of right hand octave shaking technique. Blues features heavily in her solos and she likes to use the flattened 5th a lot! Another common sound to come from her piano is a melodic idea played in a descending fashion, repeated a semitone lower each time. It's a nice effect.

What Can We Learn From DK?

Technically, not a lot. Rhythmically, absolutely tons. When she plays, she looks up, not at the keys. She is feeling the rhythm and playing every note for a purpose against the rhythm. Whilst not absolutely mind-bogglingly technically brilliant like OP, it is not necessary to be like that at all. Sure, she can play fast, but it is only when required.

Appreciate how she uses space and uses very lushious chords at the correct moments. She carefully listens to what her trio members are playing and regularly visually responds to their interesting ideas. Being an excellent listener is thus another lesson to be learnt from her.

Red Garland

I love Red Garland. Born in Texas in 1923, he was originally a sax player but switched to the piano much to the listener's delight! He was actually a professional boxer in his pre-jazz life, but fortunately this did not damage his hands.

Red had an incredibly unique style: block chords. There are many ways to play block chords, the basic idea being that both hands play at least 1 or 2 notes of a chord but in a melodic fashion as if only one note was being played during an improvisation. He played 4 notes in his left hand and 3 in his right, but one octave higher.

He loves blues and it features very heavily in his improvisations. He kind of 'tickled' the keys when he played individual note improvisations, something the newcomer is recommended to do rather than be too heavy-handed thus limited in range and dynamics.

What Can We Learn From RG?

Blues. Space. Block chords. All very important components of a great jazz pianist.

A particularly nice touch very common from RG is how he gives a lot of time to the bass player, Paul Chambers. Following the solo, the way he comes back in is very 'poetic', for want of a better word. He uses the 'call-and-respond' concept very common-place in blues music where he plays a phrase and responds to the phrase by enhancing it or using one of many techniques to develop that first idea, much like a conversation.

Hours and hours of fun can be had listening to Red, and its never the same. He is not samey, which is another useful thing to take from his talent.

Skip on over to the Videos page to enjoy some excellent samples from the artists mentioned above plus more!