Archive for the ‘piano’ Category

I recently came upon this beautiful talk by András Schiff about J.S. Bach. It’s well worth the 33:33. (was that timing intentional?)

Here are some highlights for me:
“we need ruhe und stille (peace and quiet) to create music”

“there’s no more beautiful musical calligraphy than Bach’s, because you can see these wonderful waves like flowing water. He never writes a straight line, but only waves. And so you can imagine how this music flows along.”


Prelude in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, I

Schiff plays an hour of Bach every morning. no need to practice technique. Everything he needs is in Bach: psychologically and spiritually, musically and emotionally and even purely physically. “To be able to start a day like this cleanses the soul.”

“In polyphonic music each voice is of equal value. It’s like a society in which everyone is equally important.”

“There is a blending of secular and sacred in Bach’s music. In his dancelike and playful secular music (Schiff spends a good deal of time talking about the delightful French Suites) Bach’s faith still shines through. Conversely, the Masses, Passions and Cantatas contain dancelike elements. The sacred and the secular coexist harmoniously.”

For Schiff, Bach was not only the greatest composer, but a great teacher. Starting with the inventions and working up to the preludes and fugues and later works, there is a definite pedagogical progression to his music. I would like to add that there is no better place to go to study composition and counterpoint.

Schiff’s voice is melodic. He’s beautiful to listen to.

Just for fun I have decided to return to practicing Bach daily in order to rediscover (and discover!) this fantastic music. Won’t you join me? I’m starting with the inventions and sinfonias. It’s incredible to return to those so many years after studying them. Particularly with the perspective of a jazz musician.


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note: This piece is not intended to be a review of last night’s wonderful Soundstreams concert, The Gismontis at Koerner Hall, but rather a rhapsodic reflection.

Egberto Gismonti exists in multiple dimensions. Listening to him play the piano or guitar is an aural experience of a great mystery: the mystery of living in an exquisitely beautiful multi-dimensional world.

I would have gone home joyously happy after the first solo piano piece on the program, Anéis. The fact that the piano was unmiked and in an acoustically wonderful hall really highlighted the profound depth of his playing. Every aspect of his playing had layers upon layers of great beauty. From a whispering pianisissimo to a thundering triple forte there were always multiple dimensions of sound and clarity. A crescendo that could build and build over a very long stretch of time or a sudden switch: dark to light, joy to sorrow, divine, playful, absurd.

Polyrhythm, (how many meters can ten fingers play at once?) polytonality, polytimbre, polyeverything, really. but never intellectual. poetry in motion.

oh. and did I mention his virtuoso guitar playing? his incredible and fun to play compositions? his gorgeous duets with his son Alexandre and with Jane Bunnett? (bravo Jane!!) but this is not a review…

here’s a taste from a solo piano concert in 2009:

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here is the link to part 1 and part 2

“Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career…but her music retains—and maintains—a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.” Duke Ellington

Over the past several weeks I have been listening to a great deal of Mary Lou Williams’ music in preparation for a concert at the Barrie Jazz & Blues Festival (Yamaha Piano Series “Giants of Jazz” ) this Saturday, June 11. The more I listen, the more astounded I am by Mary’s playing, writing and arranging. You can read about the project here.

In my previous postings about Mary Lou I focussed on her boogie woogie bass lines. In this post I am going to illustrate some of her other wonderful bass grooves. I have found Mary’s compositions to be a huge amount of fun to play. Her grooves are strong, interesting and incredibly satisfying. They also provide a very open space from which to solo. She can be funky, angular and soulful, but most of all she has left a wealth of beautiful music behind her just waiting to be discovered.

Let’s start with her incredible Zodiac Suite written in 1945. Here is an excerpt from “Scorpio”

The piece opens with this gorgeous bass line, over which Mary plays an angular melody making use of the whole tone scale as well as chromatic intervals. It’s provides a wonderful basis for improvisation.

The piece continues with a transition into a bluesy bass groove.

(click to enlarge. note: my transcription is from her 1975 recording. Please contact me if you’d like the complete transcription)

Here is Mary Lou playing it on her Zodiac Suite recording from 1945.

“Black Christ of the Andes” was recorded in 1964, and contains a very funky arrangement of “My Blue Heaven”. Here is the bass line:

Who knew that playing “My Blue Heaven” could be so much fun?

Here’s Mary’s original recording from 1964

…and here’s Mary and her trio from a live recording in 1978

“Offertory Mediation” is a beautiful minor blues waltz which can be found on the Norman Granz Jazz in Montreux series from 1978.

Check out this fabulous up tempo bass groove.

“Offertory Meditation” begins at 4:19 after “Over the Rainbow” (which is amazing in itself!)

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Here are two more boogie woogie bass patterns. You can read part one over here.

The following bass lines are played with swing 8th notes.

(click on image to enlarge)

This can be played over blues changes. Mary plays this at lightening speed, and once again she plays the bottom note with both the 4th and 5th fingers.

Have fun maintaining this one at a fast clip for several choruses!

Here’s a recording of Mary Lou playing Roll ‘Em in 1948 with members of Benny Carter’s orchestra. Enjoy!

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On June 11 I will be presenting a concert about Mary Lou Williams at the Barrie Jazz & Blues Festival. I’ll be talking about her life and playing her music. George Koller will be joining me on bass, and Nick Fraserwill be playing drums. It’s a fascinating project. In a career that ran from the mid 1920’s until her death in 1981 Mary Lou remained, in Duke Ellington’s words, “perpetually contemporary” and was an especially formative figure on the Kansas City scene of the 1930’s and in New York during the 1940’s. She wrote hundreds of compositions and played in every style from boogie to swing to bebop to modern, influencing several important musicians along the way. Many came to hang out in her apartment.

Mary Lou with Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Hank Jones, Tadd Dameron and Milt Orent in Mary Lou’s apartment, Aug 1947

Boogie woogie

Here is an example of a rolling octave boogie woogie bass line. (played an octave lower than written)

(click on image to enlarge)

Mary Lou is nothing short of a powerhouse. Her left hand has tremendous strength and stamina. Over the past several weeks I’ve been trying various left hand boogie patterns and trying to sustain them over periods of time. I’m in awe of her.

A couple of days ago I watched Mary Lou Williams 1978 concert from Norman Granz “Jazz at Montreux”. The camera work is great with a lot of close-ups of her left hand.

As the camera zoomed in, I began to notice that her bass notes were being played by both her 4th and 5th fingers at the same time. Two fingers on one note! A revelation! It’s also something I had never attempted before. But as I tried it out and thought about it, it began to make a huge amount of sense. First of all, it doubles the strength of the weakest finger while giving it support. The bottom note needs to be hammered in the boogie woogie style. Secondly, it changes the angle of the hand so that you’re not spreading your fingers out straight, but rather angling the hand to the left, which is way less strenuous. All of the action is in the rotation of the wrist. It didn’t take long before this way of playing began to feel less foreign and more comfortable. I imagined how I could apply it in other contexts. In fact, I had a gig that night and kept looking for opportunities to hammer out a bass note using those two fingers. The tone was strong, heavy and warm.

Do any other piano players use this technique in any style of music? I wonder where Mary Lou got it from and I’m very curious to know who else uses this.

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Ethan Iverson interviews Keith Jarrett/1. voice leading

I really enjoy reading blogs and Ethan Iverson’s is particularly fascinating. The following piece contains an excerpt from his lengthy interview with Keith Jarrett. You can find the whole piece here. I highly recommend it!

(reprinted with permission. Thanks, Ethan)

Keith Jarrett: “Voice-leading is melody-writing in center of the harmony. If you can do it, you’re lucky enough to get to a moment where you can actually find more than one thing happening and trace those things at the same time to a logical next place…or illogical place–really it doesn’t matter sometimes!
It’s so different [than] what people think when they look at a lead sheet and build those blocks [the] way you learn harmony. They can’t get away from this structure of vertical playing with your left hand and then if you’re lucky, maybe a good idea in your right.

I try to spend time every day training myself to hear more than one thing at once. As a piano player it’s very easy to lapse into rote-style playing; chords in the left hand and melodies in the right hand. When you have to think and play quickly it works well. It’s a great way to learn tunes, it sounds good and helps you focus on melody while staying grounded in the harmony. Why not?

Several years ago Fred Hersch showed me a great exercise. I call it Fred’s 20 minute workout. It’s become part of my daily calisthenics. I choose a tune, take out a timer, set it for 20 minutes, choose a tempo and play. I often start simple, just playing the melody. Over and over. While playing the melody I’m focussing on sound, touch, dynamics, nuance of the phrase and mentally taking notes of motifs that could be developed later. I switch hands, and play it as well as I can with the left. I believe that if I’m truly focussed I could probably spend 20 minutes just on melody alone. There’s that much to think about!

Each chorus provides a new challenge. I just make them up as I go and try to stick to whatever it is for an entire chorus: melodic displacement, repeated notes, motivic developement, alternating RH and LH, etc.

I spend a lot of time playing 2 part counterpoint. To me, this is how you begin to learn about voice leading and to develop the ability to truly hear more than one thing at a time.

Ideally, I’ll do the 20 minutes X4 version of the exercise: 20 minutes playing 2 part counterpoint only, the next 20 minutes in 3 parts, the next 20 changing key and the last 20 doing whatever I want in the original key.

Committing to playing a 20 minute solo is not easy. You run out of licks really quickly. It’s an amazing way to develop your sound.

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