The Jazz Piano

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The Jazz PianoWelcome to the wonderful world of jazz piano! Understanding the function of thepiano and how to play your part in the jazz band can be overwhelming when firstexposed to standard jazz material. But if we take small steps towards correctperformance concepts, the instrument can be source of great joy to play in a jazzsetting.What’s the function of the jazz piano in the jazz ensemble?The piano has a unique place in the jazz band. It is a rhythm instrument comping on chords. It is a solo instrument that can have the melody. It is a polyphonic instrument (more than one note at a time) It is one of the few instruments that comp while soloing at the sametime. It fits in the rhythm section perfectly with bass, drums and guitar. There is only one piano in a jazz band.A simple approach to comping on the pianoSometimes the complete chart is written out for the piano in jazz bands. This isgreat to get a good feel for the various jazz styles, (swing, latin, rock etc.) Theseexercises are going to focus on when you only have chord change symbols such asBb7 or F7.When a young student begins soloing on the piano, don’t worry about the lefthand. Just focus on the melody creation. As they advance, add the left hand.Definition of CompingComping is short for accompanying. In a jazz setting it’s deciding on chordvoicings and rhythms to fit with a tune or the chart. Voicings are the order,placement and notes on the piano that you choose for each chord. In generalchords should change from one to the next with the least amount of movement onthe piano.Every exercise here is based on the Duke Ellington standard C Jam Blues. It hasbeen transposed it to be in Bb to facilitate ease of learning for the entire jazz band.Also,12 bar Bb blues is a more common place to start for improvisation.

EX 1We will start with some simple 2-note voicing exercises. Here you’ll find the 4 chordsthat are within the simplest form of the C Jam Blues (in Bb). Fill in the 3rd and 7th of eachof these chords at the end of staff.

Our next step is to take these 2-note voicings and create voice leading that makes sense.It’s important to move from one chord to the next with the least amount of movement.There should be no jumping around on the piano when changing chords in general.EX 2The first chord is given. Move to the next chord with the least amount of movementwhile staying around middle C and below. This is the order of chords in a simple Bb7blues. The standard has a ii-V7-I (Cmin7 F7 Bb7) which we’ll review later.Ex 3Here are all the chords plugged in for actual chord progression. You can compare yournote choices for the 2 note chords you wrote in above. Notice how little the notes movefrom chord to chord.

COMPINGComping on the piano involves playing a rhythm with the chords involved that fits in the“Pocket” or “Groove.” That means the rhythm makes sense and fits with not only the restof the rhythm section but also with the rest of the band. Here are two levels of compingthat work in a swing setting:The first is a basic Charleston rhythm, a style of music that was popular in the 1920s and30s. So much so there are 2 styles of dance specifically for this rhythm. There are twodifferent basic ways to play it. It is recommended that you don’t just play an ostinatopattern all the time but this is great place to start.Go back to Ex 3 and play those chords with this pattern.The second example is a great way to move this same Charleston beat around and makea very interesting comping rhythm.Go back to Ex 3 and play those chords with this pattern.Advanced compingIn general comping ultimately does not involve a strict pattern but is more based onwhat’s happening in the piece. These two examples are a great starting point from whichto take that jump. Listening to recordings of great jazz piano players such as Bill Evans,Thelonius Monk, Art Tatum, or Oscar Peterson.

OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDERWhere to play on the pianoWhen playing the piano, if you’re comping chords get too low they will get toomuddy and mixed up with the bass line. It’s also important not to make largejumps when comping. Of course, there are exceptions to this. But if you followthe guide of trying to keep fairly center around middle C, it will work.Placement of the pianoIn a jazz ensemble setting the piano player needs to be able to communicate withthe rest of the rhythm section. If playing on a grand piano the piano should facethe back of the band with player looking at the drummer. The lid can be openedtowards the band to get a little more sound out. When using an upright generallyfacing it towards the band or if you can see the drummer over the top of it, just likethe grand piano.Playing with a guitar playerIt’s important to mention that when guitar players are in the band, both the pianoplayer and the guitar player have to be aware of walking over each other. That isto say playing comping rhythms that don’t work together or make it too busy. Thisis especially true during solo breaks. A good plan is to have the piano comp for thefirst soloist’s changes and then have the guitarist take the next soloist’s changes orvice-a-versa.Further resourcesThe Jazz Piano Bookby Mark Levine101 Montunosby Rebecca Mauleon-SantanThe Contemporary Pianistby Bill Dobbins

CHORD CHANGE EXERCISESThe following exercises are all arrangements of the 12 bar Bb blues. Students canplay only the left hand to get a feel for the changes and then add the right handwhen they feel more comfortable. Additionally when soloing the student can usethe left hand voicings for comping while they themselves are soloing. It is howevernot recommended that beginning jazz pianists start by comping and soloing at thesame time. Split it up and then move towards adding simple voicings as yourconfidence is gained.The right hand is made up of extensions and chordal tones. Extensions of chordsare the 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths. For example the Bb7 chord has the 3rd and 7th in theleft hand and then adds 9th (C) and the 5th (F).Example 4 Easy Chord Changes


The Jazz Piano Welcome to the wonderful world of jazz piano! Understanding the function of the piano and how to play your part in the jazz band can be overwhelming when first exposed to standard jazz material. But if we take small steps towards correct performance concepts, the instrument can be source of great joy to play in a jazz setting.

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