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How To Play Jazz Piano With Style

May 15, 2008
The piano is an important musical instrument for jazz bands since the origin of jazz music and it can be played in the style of a solo performance or as part of a band. Like the guitar, the piano is one of the few musical instruments in a jazz band which can play chords as well as notes instead just single notes only instruments such as the saxophone, trombone, trumpet or even the vibraphone (1 or 2 notes together).

Gone were the days when a jazz pianist's role is just to keep tempo with repetitive chord combinations. Nowadays, the pianist is free to choose any technique or style to accompany a band or a singer using both short and sustained chordal and melodic fragments called comping.

An accomplshed jazz pianist must not only be good at sight-reading as well as good at improvising chord symbols but also must be able to adapt to the different playing styles of various bands he jams with. Jazz pianists must balance this interpretation and improvisation to the musical style the bands are playing.

The jazz pianist is indeed a happy musician because of the extended range of the piano. The piano offers the pianist with a much greater number of choices and techniques for improvisation, much more so than any other instruments in a jazz band.

In a jazz musical style known as "striding", the left hand of the pianist alternates positions very quickly playing notes in the bass register and chords in the tenor register. The right hand will usually play the melody, but might also play harmonic content, chordally or even in octaves.

Jazz pianists play the solo with 3 basic objectives to fulfill simultaneously. The techniques are as follows :-

a) To provide a clear and swinging rhythm. This style is usually done by striking a beat with the right hand just after a weaker beat with the left hand. The objective of this technique is to mimic the combination of a cymbal ride as well as the walking bass. This technique can also be executed deftly with the left hand alone, by imitating the weaker beat preparatory swing note that is played by a bassist just before he strikes some of the notes of the bass phrasing.

b) Play the melody or solo improvisation with the right hand.

c) Establish the guide tones for chord changes.

One method commonly used by jazz pianists for tackling this triple situation simultaneously is to hold the hands together in a fork-like shape with the index and the third finger joining the thumbs to form a central group, whilst the fourth and fifth fingers are spread outwards.

This is done so that the pianist can use the left branch fingers to play bass notes, the middle fingers to moderate the guide tones and the right branch fingers to play the upper lines of the melody.

It is indeed challenging for the pianist to meet all these demands at the simultaneously. However these skills are inherent in most competent jazz pianists.

What is commonly called the 'circle of fifths' is also an important element in playing jazz piano because it provides harmonic diversity through a well guided harmonic phrase. Playing the circle of fifths technique is very much related to chord "planing" techniques which shift a chord, often voiced in fourths, up the scale, while implying a repeated harmonic pattern of tonic-dominant-tonic-dominant.

If you intend to be a good at playing jazz piano, then mastering these styles and techniques is a required skill.
About the Author
More music articles by Chris Chew at Become A Jazz Pianist and
Learn To Play Piano By Ear
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