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 reports that an eye-opening number of great classical pianists and blues guitarists were left-handed.  Various sources have cited jazz piano great Erroll Garner as ambidextrous 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 jazz and classical repertoires make 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, particularly the section at 2:52 in the linked video, 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. Although 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 kind of 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 ‘fours’, ‘twos’ and ‘ones’.

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

  1. Nick H says:

    Hearing Bach in swing feel is pretty off-putting, though awesome. Who else is there but Oscar Peterson to send difficult, polyphonic Bach musical traits and motifs to outer space? For example, his the second part of Peterson’s “Salute to Bach” reminds me of Bach’s E minor fugue in WTC 1. Though not exact, Peterson does an excellent job expanding on the melody. It’s also worth mentioning that Peterson might like Bach because Peterson’s left hand bass in the Etude coincides in style with Bach’s contrapuntal Bass melodies played in his fugues.

  2. b&b roma says:

    very interesting post

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