Block chord playing
In case you missed it on newsletter that went out recently, here is a some track I put up on Youtube playing a cocktail arrangement of. "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face,". The wonderful Lerner and Lowe song from the Broadway musical, My Fair Lady.
You will see and hear that I am using block chords almost exclusively. (See it on YouTube here.) To play with this technique, you have to be very agile with your five basic jazz chords in all inversions. You play a four-note chord in your right hand and add a single note with your left. This doubles the melody. You end up with the melody played in octaves and the chord in the middle. George Shearing, one of the great jazz icons of jazz piano and one of my greatest inspirations, often gets credit for popularizing block chords that are played in this manner. (Click here to hear Shearing play block chords!) I'll never play block chords as well as Shearing but I keep striving! One has to doubly be in awe about George Shearing because he was blind. He was a monster jazz pianist who had his own unique style, something all of us pianists hope we will acquire someday. If you aren't familiar with Shearing I want to recommend my favorite album of his called , My Ship. It's just George playing solo piano with some unforgettable arrangements and chord voicings. It's a real masterpiece.There are a few otters ways to play block chords but this is the fundamental place to begin.
Here is another Shearing link of him playing, "I'll Remember April."
I have mentioned this to a lot of you already but I want to recommend it again here.
The irealpro is an $18 app for both iphones, androids and Mac computers. Very powerful program most jazz musicians have. A big list of good jazz changes for some 1100 standards. You can transpose them at the push of a button and they also give you a band-in-a-box function where you can practice with a rhythm section at any tempo, bossa or swing. Very cool. It's chords only, no melodies.
So you can put the changes to Misty or any standard into any key you want. You have to get the melody from a printed page or fake book. It probably sounds like i work for them but I don't. Its just a terrific practicing and gigging app. Written by a working bass player in New York and I find it to be a terrific practice tool. I recommend it to all my students and I use it all the time.
Get it at: irealpro.com
What does "7" mean in a fake book?
"7" does not mean "play a 7th chord" in fake books. "7" is jazz shorthand for "play any dominant chord you feel like playing or that you think is appropriate." Of course you have to know how to make all and any dominant chord possible to take advantage of this. In jazz charts when you see a 7 written you generally don't play a simple 7 at all. You instead play a dominant chord with one or some of the color tones 9,11 or 13. And you can play all the alterations possible for this three color tones.
Play a choice of 9, b9, #9, 11, #11, 13, b13 instead of a plain 7 chord. All the color tones are possible when you see 7 written. It's like a free creative zone in jazz. The jazz dominant chord can be played in so many ways. I often discover new interesting voicings for dominant chords. Just when I think I know then all I discover a new voicing to use in my playing.
The history of fake books. What are they?
OK. Now that I got started on the topic of fake books I have to keep going.....!
Fake book charts are written with a single line and chords only. The player is supposed to create or “fake” their own arrangement. This s in contrast to the double-staff, piano arrangements of pop tunes that classical players read from. The fake book written with the melody line and chords only opens up a lot of creative possibilities for the player depending on their expertise and chord knowledge. Chord players don't read someone else's arrangement, they make up their own based on the chords they are looking at. Also, if you don't like the chords written you are free to change them! How about that? Fake book charts are there to inspire you to be creative, not to play something exactly as written by someone else. you can look at them as a starting place. If you don't like the chords then change them to suit your own ears. Often I hear beginning jazz players complain about the chords written on a chart, blasting them as no good and asking, "Who would write such lousy chords?" I always tell them that they are free to change them. There is nothing that says you have to play the chords someone else wrote. Show me what you would prefer to play instead.
Starting back around the early 1900’s these charts were originally created by professional musicians and handed around amongst themselves to play club dates. Players would collect and organize them in books to suit their needs. These roughly thrown together books were called “fake books” and were technically illegal because they were passed around freely amongst players without paying any royalties to the publishers who owned the copyrights to the tunes. They were not available or sold in music stores.
There was also precursor to the fake book. Players wrote the lyrics and chords down to tunes on small 3" x 5", file cards that could be kept in a little card file box. They would take these little cards on gigs and hand them to other players. You can sometimes still find these old tune-file cards around. They have become real antiques and give you a glimpse into the beginning days of the hard working musician.
Because fake book charts were written by professional players they were created with the player’s inherent insights about chords. It was important to make them as clear and logical as possible, with only essential chords and familiar jazz patterns so they could be sight read easily by other players on the bandstand. *
Beginning somewhere in the 1980s, publishers began assembling so called legal versions of professional fake books and titling them such so as to attract music hobbyists with the allure of a professional book. But it’s largely a marketing ploy. Some even use a font that looks like they are hand written by musicians just like the old days. The lion’s share of these books lack the professional, club playing musicians perspective. They are put together as commercial products with flashy names and covers but without any thought about savvy jazz chord progressions that make reading and playing the tunes easier and more tuneful. The chords and progressions are often nonsensical and difficult to comprehend even by professional, let alone by amateur players. However there are a small number that are excellent. The common jazz patterns are easier to spot in well written charts, bringing a logical sense of order to the musician reading them.
What is cocktail piano music?
I can't resist using this cute cartoon graphic that I use on my web site. It was drawn by the wonder English cartoonist, Rosie Brooks. I found it on the web and contacted her to get permission to use it. She has lot of other fun cartoons as well. It always make me smile when I see it.
The term “cocktail piano music” conjures up a lot of images that are generally associated with high society from that bygone era of "class," the period from the 1920s through the early 1950s. One envisions an elegant social setting in a fine restaurant or hotel bar or at a private party with a formally attired gentleman or lady, seated at an elegant grand piano, softly playing popular Broadway and jazz standards from that era. The music was blended into the backdrop, enhancing the ambience of the environment but never disturbing conversation or dining.
Sadly, that era is gone (along with the grand pianos that were everywhere in clubs and restaurants), but nevertheless cocktail piano still remains relevant. Cocktail piano is really a style of playing, a technique rather than a compilation of music from that bygone era. Cocktail piano music is simply tasteful music, played in a pleasant and unobtrusive manor while people are relaxing and making conversation in a social setting anywhere. This could be in a hotel lobby, restaurant, corner bar, cocktail lounge, private party, wedding, company event or at any gathering of people.
Though Broadway classics and jazz standards are generally expected to be a part of a cocktail pianist's repertoire, in these modern times pianists can add various types of music to their cocktail gigs. If you are playing for baby boomers, you can create soft, easy going arrangements of Beatle tunes, Elvis or Elton John and such. If your audience is even younger you can play current pop tunes as well. Just remember to keep it quiet and in and in the background. Even if it’s an exciting tune, you'll need to find a way to present it in an easy-going manner.
For this type of gig, it is important to remember that you're not there to put on a show and wow people. Your role is to subtly add to the ambience with your playing in an unobtrusive way so that the guests can enjoy their conversations and drinks without having the music overpower them. When I am playing a cocktail job, I generally keep my foot on the soft pedal the entire time (the foot pedal on the far left) and I keep my eye on the guests, from time to time, to make sure that I am not forcing them to talk loudly so they can be heard over my piano. If I see people cupping their ears and straining to hear conversation, then I know I am playing too loud.
No matter what age group you are playing for, it’s always a good idea to have some of the popular old standards in your repertoire, such as Over the Rainbow, As Time Goes By, The Girl From Ipanema, Georgia on My Mind, etc. These are the tunes that are timeless and are the most requested. All generations seem to know them. People expect a pianist to know them so, it’s a good idea to have them at your command. And oh yes, make sure you know how to play Happy Birthday. You are sure to get a request for that one and it will help to make you a hit at the gathering.
Improvisation and the "classical trap"...
I was a serious classical pianist as well, beginning at ten years old. Making the transition to jazz was not easy. Most of us classical players are trained in such a way that we use our intellects to play instead of our ears. Classical teachers usually don't teach theory, or jazz theory because they didn't learn it themselves. There is a big focus on proper touch and mastering classical pieces in small fragments and then piecing those fragments together. There is generally not much training in actual sight-reading as well. It's just the mastering of fragments. here are certainly exceptions to this but for most of us that's how we were trained.
Hello fellow pianists. This section called Piano Notes, is a place for my piano ruminations and tidbits that I hope you will find interesting. If there is any subject you would like to hear me talk about please feel free to write to me. Also I want mention that as you are reading please forgive my sometimes, not the best writing and grammar. Writing is not one of my talents and I often write fast and furiously without looking back! If you will be so kind, I hope you forgive my bad writing where you see it.
My favorite fake book!
I have countless fake books in on my shelf but these days I tend to use one more than the rest. Actually this is something I have told a lot of you about personally in our correspondences. It is a a fake book written by a jazz sax player in the San Francisco bay area. Its called the Great Gig Book (or Blue Book.) Most working players in the bay area have it in their gig bags. It's the best fake book I've ever owned. Good jazz changes to some 700 of the most popular standards players play on gigs. If you want to get it in hard copy or in a digital file just contact him directly and tell him I sent you. It's only available thru Jim. It's not sold anywhere else. It's a fake book written I the old tradition of real fake books before publishers got involved. A musician putting together a book for other musicians to use on gigs. Send an email to Jim at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The book uses some common short-hand, jazz notations that you may not recognize and I want to point them out because they are used by musicians a lot these days.
1. A dash (-) means m7
2. A triangle means Major7
3. A circle with a slanted dash thru it means m7b5
4. "7" means dominant. You can play any dominant chord you wish when you see "7" written. This goes for any and all fake books, not just this one. "7" does not mean "play 7." In jazz books "7" means play any dominant chord you want. I talk more about this earlier in this section of piano notes.
Anyway, I've been playing professionally for 45 years and it is hands down the best fake book I've ever seen . It's pretty much the only book you need to take on gigs. Can't recommend it enough. It has only well known, popular standards in it. No filler tunes or obscure jazz tunes. The chord changes are advanced, not just the simple ones in the original music. This may confuse you at times but it's good to get exposed to advanced jazz chord interpretations.
Improvisation is completely different. As classical players we still tend to use our intellects but our ears start to open up as well. The fun is in learning the jazz theory and discovering all the possibilities that there are when we learn how the chords and scales all work together like a vast puzzle that has no limits. We start to discover our own creative abilities and create melodies and harmonies (and rhythms!) in anyway we choose. Improvising is the same as composing but it's done spontaneously instead of with pencil.
As you start working with the video lessons be careful not to get into what I call "the classical trap." This is where you will learn something and then play it the exact same way every time. This is really the same as the way you learned as a classical player and it's not really playing jazz. The goal is to always be trying to get free of any set arrangements and keep expanding as you play. Always search for new ideas in your playing. Most of us jazz player never play the same thing the same way twice. Sure we tend to like certain arrangements and play them similarly but we always keep trying to find new ways to and new things to do as we play.