October Blues: the seventh scale, the circle of fifths, melodic patterns from rootless dominant 7th voicings, and the blues in 3/4 (a.k.a. Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Part 1)

An essential skill for all improvisers is being able to play the seventh scale (Barry Harris’ term for the major scale with a flatted seventh) through all twelve keys following the ‘circle of fifths’ (i.e. a pattern of descending fifths and/or ascending fourths.)  Here is one way of practicing this sequence on the piano in a conversational style, with the left hand playing chordal ‘question’ phrases and the right hand answering with scales:



To help your ear make sense of the rootless guide-tone voicings in the left hand, try practicing the chords as written in the lower staff with your right and adding the roots in your left hand.

The 7-3-13 voicing of the dominant seventh chord can be heard the intro to the Benny Golson tune ‘Killer Joe’ (played by McCoy Tyner on the original recording) and the intro to ‘Hit That Jive Jack’ as played by Diana Krall on her recording of the tune (based on the Nat King Cole original.)  On both of these intros the four-note version of the chord is used, with a 9th added between the 7th and the 3rd.  The 3-7-9 voicing of the dominant seventh chord can be heard in the left hand of both Thelonious Monk’s intro to ‘Well You Needn’t’ on the version from the album Genius of Modern Music and Duke Ellington’s intro to ‘In A Mellow Tone’ on the version from the album The Blanton Webster Band.

The exercise below expands the three note voicings from the first exercise into four note voicings and guides you through practicing them in a number of ways: with left hand roots and right hand voicings, with rootless voicings doubled in both hands, and with one hand playing the rootless voicing while the other hand plays a pattern derived from it.  The pattern based on the 7-3-13 voicing is from Horace Silver’s The Jody Grind, and the pattern based on the 3-7-9 voicing is from the bop tune ‘Donna Lee’ (on which Charlie Parker is usually credited as the composer, although Miles Davis claims to have written it.)dominant-rootless-ex

My tune ‘October Blues’ uses both of these patterns over a bassline inspired by the 3/4 blues tunes ‘All Blues’ and a progression borrowed from the Lee Morgan tune ‘Calling Miss Khadija’.  It uses two more patterns based on rootless dominant voicings which can be found in my exercise ‘Jody, Donna, Ko-Ko and Four Brothers’ (and which come from the last two tunes referenced in my composite title, ‘Ko-ko’ by Charlie Parker and ‘Four Brothers’ by Jimmy Giuffre.)  This exercise can be found in Part 2 of this post.  The bassline is inspired by the Miles Davis tune ‘All Blues’, although unlike continuous bassline from that tune, here I combine a single note phrase with a rootless voicing in a four bar pattern that leaves room for a right-hand melodic answer.  You could begin your improvised solo by keeping the same left hand pattern and answering it with improvised fills in your right hand.  The scale outline below the tune illustrates one way of practicing seventh scales over a simpler left hand bassline to get your hands in shape to create a melodic conversation between a repetitive and spacious left hand and a more active, improvised right hand.   A recording of the tune can be heard here.  Also, I have posted a two-chorus bass-and-drum accompaniment recording with which you can practice playing through tune and the scale outline (or the tune and a chorus of solo) in steady time.


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Root systems, part 4 / Elijah’s Bounce

To conclude this series of posts on root position voicings of the major ii-V-I progression, here’s a tune I composed called ‘Elijah’s Bounce’.  I borrowed the chord progression from the Charlie Parker tune ‘My Little Suede Shoes.’  To outline the ‘short’ ii-V and ii-V-I progressions in this tune, I’ve used patterns based on root position voicings, including those discussed in Part 3 of this series.   As a introduction to the concept of rootless voicings, I’ve also included patterns based on rootless voicings built ‘off the 3rd’ and ‘off the 7th’ , including some of those shown in the ‘Midnight Donna and Reets In Paris’ exercise that appears in an earlier post.  I will be discussing the comping and melodic uses of rootless voicings in upcoming posts.    In the written left hand comping, each ii-V or ii-V-I lick in the right hand line is accompanied by a voicing that matches its shape.  My point here is not to imply that all right-hand melodic shapes should be based on left-hand voicings; this tune is just an example of how voicings can be one of many sources for melodic ideas.  ‘Melody outline voicings’ such as these can also horizontally condense a melodic line in a way that makes it easier to memorize.  (Disclaimer: any resemblance to the following tunes in the measures listed is purely accidental: Round Midnight (m. 1); Moody’s Mood for Love (m. 3); Boplicity (m. 5); Four Brothers (m. 6-7); Dancers in Love (m. 9); Peri’s Scope (m. 11); Donna Lee (m. 15); Afternoon in Paris (m. 21); Radioactivity (m. 25); 26-2 (m. 27).)      The left hand part of this tune also is an example of using upbeats in comping to accent upbeats in a melodic line, which helps maintain a sense of forward motion.  I have added suggested fingerings in some places.  I hope you enjoy playing this tune, which is named after a student of mine who shows up for his lessons with a wonderfully bouyant energy.  A recording of the tune can be heard here.

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Root systems, part 3: Give it up for the root (position pattern)s! – Melodic patterns based on root position voicings

The name of this post is a variation on the phrase, ‘Give it up for The Roots!’, that Jimmy Fallon often uses to introduce his house band on his late night show. (I made an appearance on the show in 2010 during my time playing keyboards in the Mike Gordon Band.) I was reminded of what an eclectic group The Roots are when, just after the revolutionary saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman’s death last year, they played a number of his tunes on the show. (It turns out they had performed with him as well.)

Once you have learned to play voicings of the major ii-V-I progression in all keys (as shown in Root systems, Part 1), and learned to outline ii V Is in all keys with scales (as shown in Root systems, Part 2), a possible next step is to learn a tune that includes a melodic pattern based on the root position voicing of the ii V I progression, and then learn that melodic pattern in all twelve keys.

For players who are newer to jazz, I would suggest learning Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight’ or Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’, both of which can be found in The Real Book Sixth Edition from Hal Leonard.   (There is an interesting video by Brazilian bassist Marcos Roberto de Santos that matches a transcribed score of the original version of ‘Peri’s Scope’ with MIDI tracks of the piano and drum parts and a live performance of the bass part.  As the piano part is notated in grand staff, it is helpful in understanding Evans’ style.  The history of recorded versions of ‘Round Midnight’ is, to me, a fascinating jazz mystery: in the two best-known recorded versions of ‘Round Midnight’, by Monk and Miles Davis, the chord progressions used match neither the other recording nor the most common published charts of the tune.)  Two other tunes that use root position melodic patterns are Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ and Billy Taylor’s ‘Radioactivity’; scores of these pieces are somewhat harder to find. Finally, John Coltrane’s ’26-2’ uses a root position ii-V-I pattern in its bridge.  This tune, which involves his ‘Giant Steps’ changes interpolated into the form of Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation’,  is among the most challenging of Coltrane’s compositions.

To be ready to transpose a root-position-based pattern through all twelve keys, it is helpful to practice the root position voicing hands together through all twelve keys. The four-note voicing shown here includes a rootless voicing of V7, and is sequenced through two descending whole-step patterns (an alternative to the descending half-step pattern through which I sequenced ii-V-Is in the last post.) Once you have mastered these hands-together voicings, you’ll be ready to convert the voicing in the right hand into one of the patterns shown below (in other words, ‘give it up’ for the root position pattern.)Preview of “root position ii-V-I doubled”

With jazz improvisation, as with any language, it is always a potential hazard to focus too much on learning individual phrases without learning the grammar and vocabulary (or, in music, scales and arpeggios) that allow you to use phrases in context. While practicing hands-together chords as shown above is helpful before learning a root-position-based lick in all twelve keys, mastering the scale outlines of the major ii-V-I in the previous post is an absolutely crucial step.

One of my improvisation teachers, Yusef Lateef, said: ‘when you find something you like’ – meaning a melodic pattern – ‘learn it in all twelve keys.’   (‘Find something you like’ is an extremely important directive that, I think, can be challenging to follow in an age where music delivery systems which anticipate what a listener ‘might also like’ are increasingly common.)  I have sometimes extended this process by searching for examples in my ‘listening diet’ of how patterns I like are used and varied by different players. (In addition to live performances and my iTunes library, my listening diet also includes the internet station Calm Radio Jazz Piano, which plays both classic and rare recordings by great jazz pianists.) Finding a lick in multiple contexts can demonstrate how, in the jazz tradition, a lick is not an immutable object but a living thing that changes from one player to another or even from one bar to another (see the Charlie Rouse example below.)

At the end of this post are five different ii-V-I patterns which, to my mind, are based on root position voicings.  These five patterns boil down to three basic melodic shapes: the first two pairs of patterns are variations on the same basic lick, and the last pattern (from Billy Taylor’s tune ‘Radioactivity’) is a variation on a lick from a Charlie Parker solo.


  • The pattern from ‘Round Midnight’ is one of the main motives that Monk’s tune is based on; it occurs in two different transpositions during the first A section.   (In the version of the ‘Round Midnight’ pattern shown below, I have changed the first four notes from sixteenths to eighths, as the other patterns on the page are based in eighth notes.)  John Coltrane performed ‘Round Midnight’ between 1955 and ’57 in the Miles Davis Quintet and with Thelonious Monk, so it makes sense that one of the tune’s foundational five-note patterns shows up both at the beginning of his solo on Giant Steps (recorded in 1959) and that the bridge of ’26-2’ (from Coltrane’s Sound, recorded in 1960) contains an expansion of the pattern.
  • The pattern from m. 16-18 of the head to Bill Evans’ ‘Peri’s Scope’ is played a number of different ways by Evans; the right hand melodic phrase shown below can be heard on the head out of the original version from Portrait In Jazz, and the left hand chording shown is based on the live 1972 version. Note that the pickup to the phrase, which in the context of the tune anticipates the min7 change, is accompanied by an anticipated chord in the left hand. It is important to be able to accompany melodic anticipation in a bop line with this kind of harmonic anticipation, as playing all the chords on downbeats will contradict the line’s rhythmic energy. The opening phrase from Ellington and Strayhorn’s ‘Dancers In Love’ uses a six-note motive similar to the ‘Peri’s Scope’ phrase, but with a different rhythmic placement and a three-note chromatic run preceding it. The rhythm shown below for the left hand comping is Ellington’s original left hand rhythm, emphasizing the ‘and’ of one in both measures. A similar phrase is also used multiple times by Charlie Rouse in his tenor sax solo on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ugly Beauty’.  Like Thelonious Monk’s solo on Bags’ Groove (from Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants) and Sonny Rollins’ solo on St. Thomas, Rouse’s solo is a model of ingeniously varied use of a single motive.
  • Finally, the phrase from Billy Taylor’s ‘Radioactivity’ is a variation and an extension of the lick Charlie Parker plays in double time at the end of his second chorus on ‘Billie’s Bounce’ (around 1:10 on the linked video).root position maj ii-V-I patterns


If you’d rather start from a more ‘cellular’ level, you could start by choosing one of these phrases, learning the tune from which it originates, and then practicing the lick from it in all twelve keys, using the series of ii-V-Is descending by half steps or another pattern (such as ii-V-Is descending by whole steps as shown above.)


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Root systems, part 2 / outlining the ii-V and ii-V-I progressions with 7-up scales

Once you have become familiar with playing ii-V-I progressions in all keys in at least one voicing using your list of six tunes from the first post in this series, a possible next step is to practice the 7th scale (also known as the mixolydian scale or the major scale with a flatted 7th) using the ‘7 up’ pattern over ii-V progression as shown in the exercise below. The 7 up pattern stops short of an octave and implies the sound of a seventh chord more effectively than a scale that concludes on the root.  (Like the tunes in the first ‘Root Systems’ post, all these scales should be learned with left-hand rootless voicings as well.  Rootless voicings will be addressed specifically in a future series of posts.)ii V half step with scales

I learned the concept of running the 7th scale from the V chord over both the ii and the V from the teaching of Barry Harris. While many jazz educators relate the ii chord to the dorian scale and the dominant V chord exclusively to the 7th scale (sometimes also called mixolydian), it is ultimately more helpful to the improviser to emphasize the relationship between the two chords by using the 7th scale built off the root of the V chord over both the ii and the V, rather than isolating each chord with a separate scale. Many players in the bebop and hard bop periods used ii-Vs descending by half steps in tunes such as Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues for Alice’, Thelonious Monk’s ‘Ask Me Now’ and Miles Davis’ ‘Half Nelson’, as well reharmonizations such as the Mingus arrangement of ‘I Can’t Get Started’, and the substitutions on measures 3 and 4 of ‘Autumn Leaves’ used by Miles Davis and Wynton Kelly in their version of the tune. A number of modal ‘jam’ tunes, such as Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon, Tito Puente’s Oye Como Va, and Billy Cobham’s Red Baron, are built on using this pair of chords in a single key.)

When we add the I chord to each ii-V progression, it relates the ii and the V to the key from which they originate, and creates a three-chord progression that is one of the most common in jazz standard tunes. The major 7th chord can be outlined with the major scale starting on its root. When these three chords are outlined with these two scales we can see that each 7th scale uses the same group of notes as the major scale that follows it.ii-v-I root pos w 7th and major scales

You can use these chord-scale combinations to create outlines of tunes that are based around major ii-V and ii-V-I progressions, such as Billy Strayhorn’s Satin Doll, Miles Davis and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson’s Tune Up, Sonny Rollins’ Pent Up House, Tadd Dameron’s Lady Bird and John Coltrane’s Lazy Bird.  (All these tunes, with the exception of Pent-Up House, can be found in The Real Book 6th Edition published by Hal Leonard.) Note that all these tunes also use longer ii-V progressions, for example, with the ii and V chords lasting a measure each.  These longer progressions can be outlined by running each scale in two directions (either ‘7 up and down’ or ‘7 down and up’), as shown in this example with the ii-V-I progression in C:7 up and down maj ii V I

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Pairings, part three – Hand-some conversation: Two-handed melodic conversations by J.S. Bach and Oscar Peterson

This is the third post in the ‘pairings’ series. The two previous posts, on left hand walking bass with right hand melodic lines and left hand walking bass with right hand comping, each examine a particular technical challenge by comparing one or two pieces from the classical repertoire and one or two transcriptions of improvising or comping by great jazz players which involve that challenge. In this post I am pairing a well-known teaching piece by J.S. Bach with a lesser known teaching piece by Oscar Peterson, one of the few well-known mid-20th century jazz pianists to have written a collection of pieces aimed at the needs of developing pianists.  (Peterson’s book, ‘Jazz Exercises, Minuets, Etudes and pieces’ is available as a book from Hal Leonard; a scan of an earlier edition, ‘Jazz for the Young Pianist’, is posted here.)  The Bach piece and the Peterson piece both challenge the player to develop equal facility in both hands with executing melodic passages.

Developing strength, agility and independence in one’s weaker hand is a challenge for pianists in all styles and at all levels. A 2009 article in Access Atlanta reports that an eye-opening number of great classical pianists and blues guitarists were left-handed.  A number of sources also cite jazz piano greats Erroll Garner and Mary Lou Williams as left-handed.  In the case of the pianists, this suggests that their success is an example of imagination and discipline triumphing over challenging circumstances, as the classical repertoire makes such great demands of the right hand.

Most pianists, by contrast, face the challenge of building strength, agility and independence in a left hand that is naturally weaker than their right. This is the challenge addressed by Bach’s ‘Little Prelude’ in C Major (BWV 939) and a jazz piece which has a number of features in common with it, Oscar Peterson’s Etude No. 6.     (Given Peterson’s own affinity for Bach, as demonstrated in his piece The Bach Suite, the resemblance may be more than coincidental.) Unlike the Hanon exercises, which seek to build strength in the weaker hand by having it play in unison with the dominant hand, and the Bach two part inventions, in which both hands often play the same figures but rarely do so in unison, these two pieces take a more incremental approach. Both pieces open with the right hand playing an opening phrase (a three-measure phrase in Bach and a two-measure phrase in Peterson) which is then answered by the left hand with minimal right-hand accompaniment (in Bach) or alone (in Peterson.)

In the Bach piece, this sets up a ‘conversation’ in which the right hand ‘speaks’ slightly more than the left, which has just two more measure-long melodic replies (m. 7 and 12) after its initial answer in m. 4-5; in m. 9-11 and 13-16, it takes up its more typical accompanying function. Although Bach does not give the hands equal melodic time, both hands are challenged in this piece to quickly alternate between two dynamic levels: a quieter level for accompanying passages, which requires the hands to stay closer to the keys (for right-handed players, this is the ‘default’ role for the left hand, but takes more work to develop in the right hand) and a stronger level for playing melody (which requires the player to have ‘higher’ fingers while still maintaining legato articulation where necessary.) There are a number of recordings of this piece online; although the one on the ‘Great Repertoire’ channel is rather stiffly played, it does include a valuable opportunity to follow the score while listening; the video by Dr. Alan Huckleberry of the University of Iowa features a more musical interpretation, as well as good examples of upper body posture, bench placement and rounded hand position.

In the Peterson piece, the right and left hands are given equal melodic time. Like many of the pieces in Peterson’s ‘Etudes and Pieces’ collection, Etude No. 6 follows a twelve-bar blues progression (in this case, in the key of E flat), and the right and left hands follow a pattern which jazz players call ‘trading twos’, breaking the progression into six phrases which are divided evenly between the hands. Although there are fewer accompanying passages in the Peterson piece than in Bach, the left hand is given some walking bass in m. 9-10. There are a number of odd, non-swinging recordings of Peterson’s etudes posted online, the performance in the link given above, by Italian pianist Giovanni Battista Gaetano, has a good sense of swing feel.  For an example of the ensemble context where the concept of trading originated, check out the classic tune ‘Blues Walk’. In their exchange at 5:28 in this tune, Clifford Brown and Harold Land demonstrate a number of the ways two improvisers can divide the twelve-bar blues progression between them, including ‘ones’, ‘twos’ and ‘fours’.

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Root systems, part 1 / Take three at a time: an approach to learning major scales and ii-V-I progressions in all keys along with tunes from The Real Book (Volume I, sixth edition)

This post is in response to questions often asked by my students.  ‘What tunes should I practice during my summer break from lessons?’, they ask. Or: ‘How can I get better at learning tunes from a fake book chart (i.e., just melody line with chord symbols above)?’ One way to begin working toward these goals is to expand your knowledge of major scale key signatures and fingerings, and major ii-V-I progressions, to the point where you are familiar with these skills in all twelve keys.

‘Learn it in all twelve keys!’ is common refrain in jazz education which often makes it sound like a student should learn a tune or a melodic pattern or a voicing in all twelve keys at one sitting. While this can be valuable, it is also important to relate such concepts to the context of a tune.  With this thought in mind, I have found a number of tunes in The Real Book (Volume 1, sixth edition, published by Hal Leonard) that use the major ii-V-I progression in at least three keys and so are good exercises in constructing voicings for the progression in those keys. I have come up with a tune list that allows one to learn major ii-V-I progressions in all twelve keys through learning a series of six tunes. You can assemble your own list of six tunes through making various combinations of tunes that I have outlined below. The only tune one has to learn to complete this series is the Miles Davis and Eddie Vinson’s Tune Up; other than that, one can assemble the list according to one’s preferences. There are tune options that follow more of a modern jazz/bop direction (which may be more of interest to players interested in instrumental performance) and others that follow more of a ‘standard tune’ direction (which may be more of interest to those interested in singing and vocal accompanying.)

Learn one tune each from Group 1 and Group 2 (starting with either group). These groups include the keys that pianists usually learn first, as they have more straightforward fingering (i.e., RH starts on the thumb, etc.) Once you have learned these two tunes and the six keys through which they move, you can learn one pair of tunes in Group 3 (by choosing one from each of the pairs listed) and one pair in Group 4 (by choosing one of the three pairs listed.) The tunes in these later groups begin in the more basic keys introduced by the first two groups and modulate into keys with more challenging fingerings and ‘keyboard topography’. When you finish the group of six tunes, you will have learned the major ii-V-I progression in all twelve keys.

Group 1 – keys of G, F, Eb (keys shown in exercise) – choose one of three tunes:            Ornithology, How High the Moon, or Laura (not in Real Book Volume One)


Group 2 – keys of D, C, Bb – one tune – learn Tune Up


Group 3 – keys of Ab, Gb, E – choose one from each pair:-

learn I’ll Remember April
 or All The Things You Are

AND Broadway (key of Eb) or Recordame (also uses Bb)


Group 4 – Db, B, A–

learn One Note Samba (includes ii-V-I in Db and B) and I Love You (includes ii-V-I in A)

OR Solar (includes ii-V-I in Db) and
Cherokee (includes ii-V-I in B and A; if root position voicing is used, requires special solution for last four bars of bridge)

OR One Note Samba and Cherokee

Along with learning a tune or pair of tunes in each group, learn the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ exercise below in the three keys of the key group in which you are working.  This exercise takes hands-together scales and chords and two handed combinations of chords and scales through a series of three keys descending by whole steps.  (For Groups 2, 3 and 4 you will need to transpose the exercise below; for group 3, transpose a half step up; for Groups 2 and 4, transpose down to the keys indicated.)ii-V-I in three keys (Doubles and Combinations)

Although root position voicings are useful for building basic knowledge of jazz harmony and making simple arrangements, and are used at times by a number of great players in jazz piano history, they can also (like the ‘blues scale’) become a trap if used exclusively. In addition to learning root position voicings for the ii-V-I progression in each key, it is also important to learn various rootless voicings for it in each key, particularly the most common which are sometimes referred to as ‘off the 7th’ and ‘off the 3rd’. There are a number of books that deal with rootless voicings; I most often use Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg as I find it has the most straightforward layout, but they can also be found in books by Dan Haerle and Michele Weir. Each exercise on the ‘Doubles and Combinations’ sheet (major scale followed by ii-V-I in the same key, ii-V-I in LH with ‘thirteen up and down’ major scale in RH, ii-V-I in RH with quarter note walking bass pattern in LH) can and should be repeated with 3 or 4 note A form or B form rootless voicings (Degreg chapters 4 and 3) replacing root position voicings.

In order to create variety in an arrangement where the form is repeated multiple times, learn the tune three ways:

1) with LH root position voicings (along with the melody in the RH),

2) with rootless voicings in the RH (using either ‘off the 7th’ or ‘off the 3rd’ voicings, or a combination of both) and roots in the LH

3)with rootless voicings in the LH, in the same range where the RH played them, combined with a single note line in the RH (either the melody, or a scale outline, or a bop tune or solo transcription based on the changes of the tune.) For this approach, it is often necessary to move the melodic line up an octave in the RH.

In the case of most of these tunes, it is possible to use one type of rootless voicing throughout the tune (just ‘off the 7th’ or just ‘off the 3rd’), although alternating between different types can often create closer harmony. One exception to this is ‘All The Things’, where staying with only one type of rootless voicing creates too many interruptions in voice leading.

When learning any jazz tune, it is crucial to have access not just to a chart but to a recorded version by a jazz player or singer that demonstrates how to interpret the melody with both rhythmic creativity (i.e. using a swing or Latin rhythmic approach) and melodic creativity (i.e. adding melodic ornaments and fills), as well as how to incorporate improvisation (through improvised sections of various lengths, from fills between melody phrases to half or full chorus solos.) With the tunes on this list in particular, it is helpful to practice one or two handed chordal comping with recorded version in the ‘book key’ at a moderate tempo.  Here are some suggestions of recordings of this type to use:


How High The Moon – Chet Baker from ‘Chet’ album

Laura – Charlie Parker with Strings

Tune Up – Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

All The Things You Are – Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’

(Rollins begins by improvising on the changes rather than stating the melody, so this can be used for practicing chords only)

Broadway – Art Pepper

Recordame – Bobby Hutcherson

One Note Samba – Coleman Hawkins (from Desafinado)

Cherokee – Modern Jazz Quartet

I’ll Remember April – Jim Hall and Ron Carter from Alone Together (Live), Sonny Rollins version from ‘A Night At The Village Vanguard’, Miles Davis version from ‘Blue Haze’ album

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Pairings, part two: left hand walking bass with right hand chordal comping by Kenny Barron, John Coates Jr. and G.F. Handel (or, Spring Comping Trip)

The piano, more than any other instrument, has the capacity to evoke the sound of a group of players.  In the Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’ that I transcribed in the last post, it could be argued that his left hand bass line and right hand melody line have just as much independence as do Slam Stewart and Don Byas in their duo version of ‘I Got Rhythm’.  Great stride players like Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson incorporated into their solo playing the chordal, bass and melodic parts that Nat King Cole later divided up among the members of his trio.  Another category I have been interested in recently is that of great jazz pianists who excel in a duo context.  For me, Kenny Barron’s work on the duo album ‘People Time’ with Stan Getz places him at the top of this list, although he has made many other great duo recordings, including his work with Frank Morgan and Regina Carter.

One of the most important skills for the duo player is the ability to walk quarter or half note bass in the left hand while comping chords in the right.  As an accompanist, I have always found that this is a crucial way of establishing a rhythmic connection with soloists, both those who are experienced musicians and those whose sense of rhythm needs some guidance.  Throughout most of ‘People Time’, Kenny Barron and Stan Getz display a nearly telepathic connection that allows both of them to play with great rhythmic freedom while still maintaining a clear sense of moving together.   The excerpt I transcribed below, from Barron’s comping on ‘Like Someone In Love’, is a comparatively rare instance where his accompaniment of Getz moves into more deliberate timekeeping.  It is a great example of an active quarter-note bassline combined with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand.  Although this technique is only one of many that Barron uses, for most jazz duo situations, the ability to combine strong left hand walking bass with upbeat-oriented comping in the right hand is a crucial survival skill for the pianist.  Barron also employs a number of refreshing chord substitutions on this great standard.  I have transcribed just the first sixteen bars of this chorus, as my idea is that this should serve as a model for your own duo comping, rather than a score from which to perform.Like Someone In Love Kenny Barron comping

John Coates Jr. is what I would call a ‘municipal monster pianist‘ (the term I coined to describe Dave McKenna in the last post.) For more than 50 years,  Coates’ home base was Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where he played at the Deer Head Inn.  (As one newspaper article attests, Coates‘ playing was an influence on the young Keith Jarrett, who grew up in that area; a more recent article reports that Coates has relocated to California.)  Much of Coates‘ recorded output is solo piano music in an improvisational folk-jazz gumbo style that makes clear the extent of his influence on Jarrett.  The excerpt below is from a great version of the standard ‘Moonglow’ on a duo album he made with the fantastic vocalist Nancy Reed at the Deer Head in 2007.  I was not aware of Reed’s singing before hearing this recording, but hearing her made me an instant fan; in addition to being a highly inventive and swinging vocalist, she is equally gifted bass player and I look forward to checking out her music more.  Coates‘ left hand walks in a manner similar to McKenna’s (although Coates’ bassline here uses an even lower range than the McKenna excerpt) while his right hand deftly alternates between chordal comping phrases and single-note fills.John Coates Moonglow

John Coates’ solo playing, documented on the collection ‘The Omnisound Years’, is the work for which he is best known and is well worth checking out.   With interpretations of tunes by Neil Diamond, The Beatles and Cole Porter, this compilation suggests the catholic (in the sense of ‘universal’) breadth of Coates’ repertoire during the 1960s and 70s when the recordings were made.  In his composition Prologue, Coates synthesizes these diverse influences, beginning with an intro that would be at home in an Elton John tune, progressing through some more jazzlike modulation and into a solo that makes shrewd and tasteful use of bebop language.  Like the classic live recordings of Bill Evans at the Village Vanguard and Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, on these recordings Coates is heard in a context of ambient sounds, including dinner conversation, clinking silverware and even a passing car at one point in ‘Prologue’.  The listener gets a strong sense that this music was created in and for a particular social setting, and a particular room.  Although the arc of the melody in ‘Prologue’ has a meditative quality, there is also an energy to Coates’ playing which I think derives from a natural inclination a solo player can develop in live situations to mirror the level of activity in the room where they are playing.

Coates’ solo piano music has a site-specific nature which can also be found in the solo keyboard music of G.F. Handel.  Handel’s keyboard music, in contrast to his concert works, was created for intimate, informal situations such as small social gatherings and concert intermissions (where the level of background noise was likely comparable to that heard behind Coates’ Prologue.)  Handel’s Aria with Variations from his Suite no. 1 in B Flat Major  contains, in its second variation, a valuable etude in combining left hand walking bass and right hand chordal comping.  (A score for the piece can be found here – go to the third score listed under ‘Sheet Music’.)  In addition, this piece also prominently features a number of other techniques which are important skills for jazz pianists, including left hand walking bass with right hand melody (in the first variation) and left hand-right hand conversation (in the third.)

Postscript: I have always enjoyed duo work; some recent recordings I’ve done in that format include a version of eden ahbez’ ‘Nature Boy’ on vocalist Allison Mann’s album For My Mother and Father, and a version of ‘All of You’ that can be heard on the ReverbNation page for Birdcode, a new band that I’ve been working in with bassist John Rivers, drummer Caleb Bronz, and vocalist Amber deLaurentis.

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Pairings, part one: left-hand walking bass and right hand lines in Dave McKenna, Bach and Handel

The concept of food pairings is one that I’ve learned a great deal about from my wife, Amber deLaurentis, a great pianist, vocalist and songwriter who happens to be an amazing artist in the kitchen as well. In food pairing, one chooses a garnish for the way it brings out the flavor in a salad or a cut of meat; or one chooses a beverage for the way it brings out the flavor in the food it accompanies.

When I studied classical piano repertoire with Elizabeth Metcalfe and Sylvia Parker in the mid to late 1990s, following my studies of jazz with teachers including Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp, Tom McClung and Bruce Sklar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I noticed that a number of keyboard techniques I had learned as a jazz player also showed up in classical piano repertoire. The techniques that jazz players call left-hand walking bass, left-hand stride accompaniment and left-hand chordal comping, for example, can all be found in various pieces from standard classical solo piano literature. As a piano teacher, I’ve started to notice that applying a given technique (for instance, walking bass) to a jazz tune can be easier if it is studied side by side with a classical piece that calls for the same technique; the ‘pairing‘ can bring out the ‘flavor‘ in both pieces. To use more technical (and less appetizing) language, the classical pieces can function as etudes that help a jazz player develop facility with a particular technique.  Making these kinds of connections with classical repertoire can can also introduce jazz pianists to the value and relevance of studying classical solo piano literature in general, as a way to build technique, develop their sound. and as an end in itself.  This is the first in a series of posts on pairings of classical and jazz pieces that can be useful (and hopefully enjoyable) in the practice room (and maybe also in adventurously programmed performances.)

In first couple pairings I’ll be connecting classical pieces with transcriptions from two great players, Dave McKenna and John Coates, Jr., who might be called ‘municipal monster pianists.’ Both McKenna and Coates are well-known among fellow musicians and in certain pockets of the listening public despite the fact that they largely avoided the typical touring routine of the professional jazz musician and chose instead to make a long-term commitment to playing solo piano at one venue close to their place of residence.  (McKenna played six nights a week throughout the most of the 1980s at the Plaza Bar in the Copley Square Hotel in Boston.)  Given their preference for solo piano playing, as well as the fact that they were also great accompanists, it is no coincidence that McKenna and Coates both mastered the technique of walking bass lines with the left hand. The transcription below is an excerpt from a Dave McKenna version of ‘C Jam Blues’  which can be heard and seen on YouTube.  (The tune begins at :29 on the video; one of the reasons I chose to transcribe this ‘C Jam Blues’ is that it’s a notch or two slower than McKenna’s commercially released versions of the tune.) McKenna combines an eighth-note-based solo full of bop-style melodic invention with a quarter-note bass line where he manages to be inventive while also keeping his left hand largely below C3.  I suggest first learning to play the head of ‘C Jam Blues’ in the right hand while playing the first twelve bars of walking bass in the left, and then learning McKenna’s solo line in the right hand.   (I have found the right hand pattern in m. 16-17 particularly fun to transpose  through the circle of descending fifths while playing dominant 7th chords through the circle of fifths in the left hand.)Dave McKenna solo on C Jam Blues - Full Score


Walking bass was also a common technique in the Baroque era; the bass lines in J.S. Bach’s orchestral music, for example, are often nearly as strong and independent as the melodic lines further up in the contrapuntal texture. A microcosm of this bass independence can be heard in the Gavotte from his English Suite in G Minor.  Although the left hand bass line alternates between quarter-note walking and brief flurries of eighth notes, there are enough eighth notes in the right hand line that I find it the piece comparable to a jazz situation with walking bass and an improvised eighth-note line.

Finally, I discovered the Allemande from Handel’s Keyboard Suite in B Flat Major through a recording by Keith Jarrett, who first became known as a jazz pianist but is equally known today through his classical recordings. This piece combines the same kind of quarter-note walking bass and with an eighth-note-based melody that is slightly less ornate than that of the Bach Gavotte.

I encourage pianists looking to develop their facility with walking bass to try practicing either the Bach or the Handel side by side with my McKenna transcription.  In an upcoming post I will look at how great jazz pianists combine left hand walking and right hand chordal comping in duo situations.

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The State of The Blues, Part One: Helen Sung’s solo on C Jam Blues

This is the first in a series of posts featuring transcriptions I’ve done of contemporary jazz pianists soloing on the blues progression.  Sometimes in the work of contemporary players such as Fred Hersch, Brad Mehldau and Ethan Iverson (who studied with Hersch), it can seem as though the Horace Silver-Wynton Kelly tradition of conversation between left hand chords and right hand melodic phrases in a solo is becoming a thing of the past, even when playing over more standard progressions.  This thought led me to search through the tundra of modern jazz piano playing for examples of contemporary players using the conversational style.  It turns out plenty of players still use this approach, and many have found a way to use it for expressing more modern ideas.

In the first two choruses of her solo on C Jam Blues (from the version on her album reConceptions), Helen Sung adeptly uses a mixture of three-note rootless voicings (for example m. 1-6), two-note guide tone voicing (m. 10), smaller cluster voicings (m. 7 and 19) and, starting in the second chorus, McCoy Tyner-style perfect-fifth ‘bombs’ in her left hand.  This comping supports and converses with a right-hand line that seamlessly weaves together crisp Wynton-Kelly style phrases (as in m. 2-9) and brief but pungent excursions like m. 10 and m. 13-14 that slip away from the harmony and imply harmonic extensions and alterations.  Sung’s playing swings hard throughout, from the morse-code simplicity of the head to the exploratory and virtuosic conclusion of the solo beyond the choruses shown here.  Sung’s work as a recording artist and composer is well worth checking out, including her albums ‘Going Express’ and ‘Helenistique’ (which includes a great version of ‘Cottontail’.)  (Note: This transcription was posted with Helen Sung’s permission.)Helen Sung solo on C Jam B

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‘You Need To Lift It’: A Visit From Henry Butler

Four of my piano students recently played in a workshop with the great Henry Butler, one of the prime exponents of the New Orleans piano style. (Many thanks Steve MacQueen and Madeline Bell from the Flynn as well as Dr. Alex Stewart at UVM for their help in organizing the workshop.) From earlier albums like ‘Fivin’ Around’ to the more recent ‘PiaNOLA’ and the just-released ‘Viper’s Drag’, Butler’s playing has carried forward the innovations of New Orleans pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair and James Booker and featured Butler’s own unique fusions of harmony (from gospel, blues, jazz, etc.) and modernistic melodic motion.

In advance of Butler’s visit, I transcribed some of Henry Butler’s piano solo on the tune ‘Some Iko’ and studied it with some of my students. It can be heard in a YouTube video featuring Butler with Steven Bernstein and the Hot Nine, the band with which he performed recently at the Flynn. The solo is a great example of how to apply bebop concepts to a simple two-chord progression, as well as of a conversational and melodic approach to comping with the left hand during a right hand melodic solo. I told Butler that I particularly liked the two-handed melodic intro that he plays before getting into the form of the tune, and he mentioned that Frank Zappa keyboardist and jazz/funk keyboard icon George Duke was one of the first people to show him this kind of two-handed technique. This reminded me that I’ve been wanting to transcribe Duke’s solo from the Zappa tune ‘Blessed Relief’. (Maybe I’ll also post a transcription I did of Art Neville’s intro chorus from the Meters tune ‘Cabbage Alley’.) In any case, here’s the beginning of Butler’s solo:Some Iko 2

In the first eight bars of this solo excerpt, Butler focuses on using the flatted third of the F7 and C7 changes, which gives the melodic line a more traditional blues flavor.  However, both the way that his line closely follows the chord changes, and the way his left hand interacts conversationally with the right (comping in spaces his right hand leaves, rather than playing chords underneath a more continuous line) are more characteristic of jazz players like Wynton Kelly.  Starting with the pickup to measure 9, Butler uses the bebop approach of placing non-scale tones or ‘half steps’ on upbeats (for instance, using the half steps between the root and 7th and the 6th and 5th of the F 7th scale in m. 10).   His blues-based opening strategy in the first eight bars grabs your attention, but the jazz chromaticism in the latter half of the solo holds it .

In the workshop at UVM a few weeks ago, Butler hit a wonderful balance of criticism and encouragement with my students. While some of the statements I’ve quoted are critical, which is to be expected in a master class, my written quotes don’t fully convey the congeniality with which he delivered these thoughts. I am really grateful for how generously he shared his prodigious knowledge and insight during an hour and a half sandwiched between his arrival in town and a house concert. (Before the workshop, we were also treated to Butler’s harmonically adventurous takes on ‘In Your Own Sweet Way‘ and ‘Love For Sale‘ while he tested out the piano.)

The workshop began with one of my UVM students playing a rendition of ‘Mood Indigo’ that opened with two choruses of stride (a head statement followed by a chorus of solo.) After listening to some of the stride solo, Mr. Butler stopped the student and said: “You’re playing this sort of in a stride style, and I hear in your right hand that you’re intimating that it’s supposed to be a triplet feel or swing feel, right? But in other parts of your playing, I wonder if you’re trying to be in the swing style or in more of an even rhythmic style.” He then demonstrated some ways of adding a swing feel to a stride left hand. (An example of this is in the discussion of ‘Blue Monk’ below.)

In discussing the student’s solo, Butler commented: “You have to compel people to listen, and the only way you’re going to be able to do that is by instituting more contrasting elements. [Your solo sounds] pretty much the same in both choruses. Your first four bars, maybe your first eight bars, could be just the way you started. And then, after that, you need to lift it. One way to lift it is by changing your phrasing to maybe a mix of sixteenth notes with maybe some of what you’re doing [i.e. eighth notes] or triplets.” He followed this with a couple choruses of his own that demonstrated rhythmic variety and swung hard. I’m going to see if I can get Mr. Butler’s permission to post audio excerpts, but in the meantime, here’s a transcription of the beginning:H Butler Mood Indigo 2

Later in the workshop another student played ‘Blue Monk’, also leading off with two choruses of stride. Through first talking and then playing a few choruses of his own on the tune, Butler made the point that stride piano is not just the ‘boom-chuck’ combination of a bass line in one range and chords in another, but that it can and should also include elements of swing feel. “If I was going to play it sort of like you were playing,” Butler began, “I would maybe do this.” He then played a stride head statement of ‘Blue Monk’ full of swing and great voice leading in the left hand. He further clarified his approach to stride on this tune by playing a chorus of left hand alone on the twelve-bar jazz blues in B flat, starting with these four bars:H Butler LH blues part 1

He then paused, perhaps remembering how one of my students had mentioned that he couldn’t reach tenths, a common interval in stride left hand parts. Butler added: “If your hands aren’t big enough to do that, you can do…” and went on to play the following excerpt.  He began by taking a different approach to the walking tenths in the last bar of the excerpt above and changing them to what I’d call jump tenths :H Butler LH blues part 2

Throughout this excerpt, Butler either jumps up a major tenth from the root of a chord to its  third(as in the first bar), or up a seventh from the root of a dominant chord to a guide tone (i.e. 7th and 3rd) voicing of it.  In these excerpts he also follows the standard jazz piano practice (described in Jazz Keyboard Harmony by Phil deGreg) of keeping the 3rd and 7th of every chord above C3 (i.e., the C below middle C.)

Henry Butler’s visit was an energizing experience both for myself and my students, some of whom have also gotten to play in workshops with other guest artists; over the years I have had the privilege of coordinating workshops with workshops with Arturo O’Farrill, Marcus Roberts, Donal Fox, Jason Moran and John Stetch. If I can see interest in this post in the form of blog comments, maybe I’ll post some of the transcriptions I’ve done of these great players. Recently I’ve discovered the benefits of transcribing first and asking questions later (as I did with Butler, Roberts, and Fox); but then again, it can also be exciting to chase the traces of a melodic imagination after its owner leaves town. True confession: while I was transcribing Butler’s workshop excerpts, I was dashing back and forth from my computer to the TV to catch updates on the gripping last game of the World Series.  It was doubly inspiring to take breaks from decoding Butler’s brilliant piano moves and see the team from the birthplace of the Count Basie Orchestra stride to victory over the team from the birthplace of bebop (who swung hard in their own right.)

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