The Mike Gordon band has been making its way through the Midwest recently, including shows in Madison, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan, and (the city I’m writing from today) Pittsburgh, PA. We have been alternating between larger venues such as the Barrymore Theater in Madison, and smaller ones, such as the Blind Pig in Madison. The list of tunes we play has grown to include more of Mike’s tunes as well as songs by Talking Heads, Prince, Gillian Welch and Los Lobos. I have to admit that practice time has been getting away from me the past two days, as I’ve been writing this most recent blog, but reading the email responses that people have started to send have been inspiring me to head back to the keyboard.
As I mentioned in the last blog, some of the transcribing and playing I’ve been doing while on this tour has gravitated toward a subject that has interested me for a while, the question of ‘how do I get my two hands to interact and cooperate when I’m improvising?’ I have been getting some new ideas on how to answer this question from watching the band that is opening for us on this leg of the tour, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. The leader of the band, Brian Haas, is a pianist with an interesting background – he pursued classical studies to the point of preparing for the Van Cliburn competition, but now plays Rhodes piano in a group that travels the boundaries between jazz and improvisational rock. His classical background can be heard in one of the band’s original tunes called ‘Drethoven’ (the title is an amalgamation of Dr. Dre and Beethoven) in which his melodic improvising and comping makes interesting use of low-range left hand chording similar to that which Beethoven so often used in his sonatas.
The following paragraphs outline some of my thoughts about coordinating the hands when improvising. While this discussion does get a bit lengthy, I hope you will check it out, as it discusses a number of tunes I frequently work on with students, and does eventually relate back to the attached transcriptions. If you haven’t yet emailed me a response in the form of a journal entry, mp3 or notation file, I hope it might inspire or provoke a response!
The history of jazz improvisation can sometimes appear to be simply a succession of individual players who created unique personal styles through the solos they improvised. Players such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and John Coltrane can certainly be described as master storytellers, but when we first hear their stories it can often seem as through the players who accompany them are merely providing the energy that moves their story along. As we listen more closely to the playing of these masters, however, we realize that in addition to being gifted storytellers they are equally gifted conversationalists, and that what initially seems like a story told by a single voice is in fact a story told through dialogue between many voices. One need only listen to the interplay between Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, or Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, or John Coltrane and Elvin Jones, to realize that forging of a truly original storytelling voice is so often dependent on the presence of the an interlocutor whose questions or responses help determine the direction and pacing of the story. In the case of the classic duos cited above, the music they created together is undoubtedly a dialogue between equals, but when one of the pair assumes the role of accompanist and the other the role of soloist, the timing (although not the content) of the give-and-take that results can sometimes remind us of the great comedy teams (Chico and Harpo Marx, Laurel and Hardy, etc.) whose genius was in exaggerating the contrast between introvert and extrovert, leader and follower, aggressive and passive.
All great jazz pianists have had to solve the problem of creating a relationship between a stronger hand and a weaker hand. While this might seem like a purely technical problem, it is the kind of challenge where a creative mind can see the possibility of a solution which works both technically and artistically. I would argue that many of the great jazz pianists, in addition to creating a unique melodic voice like any other improvisor, also establish a relationship between their left and right hands which is in its own way as distinctive as any great creative relationship between two individuals. One example of a distinctive right-left hand relationship is in the playing of Horace Silver. In the head statements of his tunes ‘Sister Sadie’ and ‘Song for My Father’, Silver uses repeated left-hand rhythmic figures to frame melodic phrases, creating a call-and-response effect, where accompaniment figures sound like answers to the melodic questions posed by the melody (as in ‘Sister Sadie’), or sotto voce comments between melodic statements (as in ‘Song for My Father’). In the piano solos that follow these head statements, this effective arrangement technique doubles as a useful structure for opening an improvised solo. As he begins to improvise in both tunes, Silver continues the left hand patterns from the melody and weaves new melodic phrases between them, creating a solo that gradually departs from the melody through the use of right hand variation. A similar effect occurs in many of the solos of Wynton Kelly (such as those on ‘Freddie Freeloader’ on Kind of Blue and ‘Green Dolphin Street’ on Kelly Blue), where the improvising begins with a polite dialogue between right hand melodic phrases and left hand accompaniment figures, with both sides being careful not to interrupt the other. Like any unscripted dialogue between two well-acquainted parties, these solos evolve into a looser exchange where questions overlap answers and vice versa.
I often use the solos mentioned above as models for piano students who are new to improvising, because they are great examples of what one might call ‘audible inner dialogue’. ‘Freddie Freeloader’ is the only track where Wynton Kelly appears on the 1959 Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. The piano player on the rest of the album is Bill Evans, as one of Miles’ goals on the album was to explore the modal style of improvising that Evans had begun to explore with his solo ‘Peace Piece’ on Everybody Digs Bill Evans. Miles presumably brought in Wynton Kelly for the tune with the most traditional blues form on the record because he preferred Kelly’s blues playing to Evans’s – and there are some grounds for thinking that Evans would have readily agreed with this decision, judging by how infrequently Evans chose to use tunes with traditional blues forms on his own records. (There is an Evans version of Freddie Freeloader available, but only as a bonus track on the CD reissue of You Must Believe in Spring). On an album that sought to demonstrate that breaking free from traditional progressions could liberate an improvisor’s creativity, Kelly, rather like a convivial contrarian, demonstrated with his sole appearance that it was still possible to find flexibility within a traditional form. In the famous opening bars, he improvises a series of two measure phrases over the first twelve measures of the form, almost all of which have a left hand choral ‘call’ followed by a right hand melodic ‘response’. The second half of the first chorus begins with a four measure right hand phrase capped off with a left hand ‘response’ in the fourth measure. So he succinctly reminds us that the twelve bar blues form can be approached melodically as six two bar phrases (as in ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, or the head of ‘Freddie’) or three four-bar phrases (as in ‘Blues by Five’ or any number of other tunes). (I don’t have a version of the Wynton Kelly solo posted yet, but an arrangement I made of the tune with melody in the left hand and Kelly’s fills from the head in is here.)
I find this solo, and others such as the Silver solo mentioned above, contains a valuable lesson for students who are new to improvising on the piano; just as Kelly uses his left hand chord ‘calls’ to make his phrasing more clear to the listener, a beginning improvisor can use left hand chord ‘calls’ to, as jazz pianist Mike Holaber says, ‘let the left hand feed the right hand’. In this style, the left hand’s role is something like that of the ‘play-by-play’ commentator in a sports broadcast – stating important events and changes concisely for the listener – while the right hand functions more like the ‘color commentator’, creating a narrative by using the time that elapses between each event to elaborate on the present moment and (if time allows) relating it to the past or anticipating new developments. The Silver and Kelly solos also demonstrate, however, that while the call and response style is a useful way to open a solo, a soloist needs to use other techniques, such as supporting a right hand melodic line with a simultaneous left hand rhythm, and knowing when to get the comping out of the melody line’s way, in order to have a solo develop effectively.
The inner dialogue in Silver’s and Kelly’s solos reminds me of how often great writers, Bertolt Brecht and Walt Whitman among them, opened poems and essays by asking themselves a question and then answering it, opting to write in two voices rather than one. Hearing the openings of the Silver and Kelly solos is also a great reminder that real goal of improvising is to create ideas with musical integrity, rather than to put your latest technical work on display. A student of mine summed up this idea well, talking about one of her tunes in an email response to an earlier blog: “I found that I didn’t really need to run scales for two weeks before trying to improvise, that I was able to make a solo out of just what I already knew about the song, and the solo came out sounding halfway decent.” Being a jazz improvisor at any level means having to work constantly to further your technique, but it also means putting your ears in charge when you improvise, and letting your hands be guided by the same sensibility that guides your voice when you improvise vocally.
The ‘call and response’ approach to beginning an improvised solo can be contrasted with the approach of Red Garland in his solos on ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ (from Round About Midnight ) and ‘Blues by Five’ (from Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet ). In these solos the right hand delves more quickly into longer melodic phrases, and is accompanied by a more understated left hand which plays a more continuous rhythmic pattern, often on the ‘ands’ of two and four. In Garland solos such as the one on ‘Blackbird’, this closer rhythmic alignment between the left and right hands evolves from opening choruses with a more relaxed single note line to more energetic final choruses in which the right hand improvises shouting melodic phrases in octaves while the left hand doubles the rhythms of these phrases with repeated chords. (Of course, Kelly and Silver’s improvising was never strictly or even primarily hands-separate, as Garland’s was not strictly hands-together, but the different ways these players chose to begin their solos provide us with useful examples of some different approaches.)
There are two important boundaries to this discussion which are worth clarifying. First, I am primarily discussing piano solos that are played in ensemble situations (rather than solo piano performances). In these situations a pianist is usually accompanied by the steady timekeeping of the rhythm section, which is liberating to the extent that the pianist does not have to be the only timekeeper, but also challenging in that there is a certain amount of harmonic space occupied by the bass (and sometimes other chord instruments) which the pianist typically avoids while improvising. I am also discussing solos where the left hand is ‘the chord hand’ and the right hand ‘the melody hand’, however, this is by far not the only two handed approach to improvising used by jazz pianists. To mention just a few other approaches, George Shearing and Bill Evans both popularized the use of ‘locked hands’ technique (the development of which has been credited to the lesser known Milt Buckner) where an improvised melodic line in octaves is filled in with occasional or constant inner harmony; Ahmad Jamal among others plays left hand lines which rhythmically double the right hand but add harmony; and Lennie Tristano among others pioneered using the left hand to create a melodic line which is contrapuntal to the right hand line (i.e. rhythmically and melodically independent). This approach has been developed by a number of more recent players including Billy Taylor and Fred Hersch.
In searching for more modern examples of jazz pianists using the call and response approach, I’ve transcribed solos by Roland Hanna (‘Fingers’) and Hank Jones (‘Sarala’). The Roland Hanna solo intrigued me because it is a solo that uses call and response style over the rhythm changes progression. Many of the recorded and live piano solos I’ve heard over this progression take the form of a single note line uninterrupted by left hand chording, and my guess is that the frequency with which chords change in this progression (many chords last only two beats) often leads pianists to focus on elaborating the progression melodically, rather than risk too much chordal intrusion by including the left hand. Hanna manages to use left hand chording to rhythmically drive a right hand line which alternates between shorter and longer phrases. He also uses single notes in the left hand as an effective way to signal the end of the form.
Hank Jones’ solo is a fascinating example of cross-cultural collaboration. In this tune he is accompanied not by the usual jazz rhythm section but by a group (Cheick Tidiane-Seck and the Mandinkas) that combines Western instruments such as electric guitar with those indigineous to Africa such as the djembe. He is also not improvising over a typical jazz progression, but rather the open G minor harmony created by this combination of instruments playing in a traditional Malian style. For a player whose roots include the harmonically dense traditions of bebop and stride piano, this is a serious departure. (I sought out this recording after joining the Mike Gordon band, to investigate how one of my jazz heroes managed to relate to unfamiliar musical surroundings.) I admire how Hank manages to reflect the relaxed groove that has been established in the opening section of the tune, and make his solo relate to the harmonic environment he’s in, and yet still make his solo evolve rhythmically (through exploring triplet- and 16th-note based motives) and melodically (through very gradually introducing bop-style chromaticism). We gave what I think was a particularly effective performance of ‘Sarala’ at our show in Madison, Wisconsin. Great musical experiences always have an mysterious element to them, so I’d hesitate to try and give a complete explanation of why this performance worked; however, my suspicion is that my studying Hank Jones’ solo further, the band’s decision to change the form of the tune somewhat to smooth out some of its natural asymmetry (while still leaving some of the asymmetry!), and the inclusion of a section on an Indian hand drum called the kanjira by drummer Todd Isler all had something to do with it.
I also found some examples of playing styles that alternate between the hands in the listening I did to get myself ready for playing with Mike Gordon. In the Allman Brothers’ ‘Jessica’, a rock instrumental that contains many elements such as extended improvising and open harmony that would later figure prominently in jam-rock, there is a piano solo (by keyboardist Chuck Leavell) which begins with four bar phrases divided between right hand melody and left hand chordal response. I also took my preparation for the Mike Gordon tour as an opportunity to revisit a piano solo that has always fascinated me, the introduction to Professor Longhair’s ‘Hey Now Baby’. This piece creates an idiosyncratic fusion of Latin and blues styles through combining a syncopated New Orleans-style bassline with a melody that alternates between melodic phrases which match the feel of the bassline and others which in a double time feel. At certain points the bassline is also in double time which results in some rapid-fire exchanges between the hands. I had the opportunity to perform this tune at our Chicago show while trading keyboards and phrases with Ivan Neville, a younger member of the New Orleans family that produced the Neville Brothers band. It was a blast!
Another recent musical discovery for me has been the guitarist Guthrie Trapp who sat in with the band in Nashville and played much of the time in what I’d call a country bebop style, particularly on a version of my tune ‘Crumblin’ Bones’ which we played that night. I mentioned to him that heard a jazz influence in his playing, and he modestly claimed not to have much knowledge of jazz. For me this is a great example of how the way that jazz players mix diatonic and chromatic motion in their melodic lines has much in common with the use of chromatic scale in other styles. It makes me think of the time I saw Chick Corea perform a Mozart concerto which he called the ‘bebop concerto’.