Thursday, July 9, 2009

Contrapuntal jazz piano

I, like many people, am a huge J.S. Bach fan. I practice at least one of his pieces every time I sit down to practice the piano. I love contrapuntal music, from whatever era.
How many instruments can create a polyphonic texture all on their own? A couple.
How many can do it with more than 2 independent melodic layers?
It often puzzles me as to why more jazz pianists don't use their left hand in any other sort of way than in a "'comping" one. For all of the re-appreciation of pre be-bop era piano players that has been happening since the Marsalis movement, there are not many pianists who improvise and use the left hand for more than chordal accompaniment or the odd touch of a bass note or open fifth.
Pianists like Marcus Roberts, Eric Reed and Kenny Kirkland were obviously know/knew very well educated about 'stride', 'boogie-woogie' and other early piano styles. However unless they are playing some sort of direct reference to that music, i.e. playing a piece written in that era or directly derivative of that style, that don't seem to take on-board the idea of polyphony that is suggested, often explicitly, in that music.
Brad Mehldau is the obvious exception. Now there's a guy who can, and does, play equally well with both hands. Craig Taborn is someone else who comes to mind, but how many others are addressing this stagantion that seems to be happening in the history of jazz piano?!
I would argue Keith Jarrett only ever explores polyphony in a serious way (and boy does it get serious: Dark Intervals anyone?) in a solo context. His trios, even his early, wilder ones, are still very much derivative of that post-impressionist/Bill Evans lineage.
If you listen to Herbie Nichols (check out his solo on "The Third World"), Horace Silver (he's always playing those 3rds and 7ths like little counter-melodies), Ahmad Jamal, Andrew Hill or any other pianists who were intent of creating their own sound outside of that Bill Evans-Herbie Hancock-McCoy Tyner lineage you can here they have carried on Art Tatum/Bud Powell's conception of the LH as both an accompanying and melodic force.
What happenned?
Maybe one explanation is that, with the advent of formal jazz education, it became more necassary to teach a rigid 'system' piano voicings. The set of voicings developed and adapted by Evans, Hancock and Tyner are, in most ways, alot more categorizable, and therefore learnable/teachable, than the more abstract explorations than those other pianists I have mentioned. It is easy to learn voicings: 3/5/6/9 or 3/5/7/9 by rote and use them almost immediately in everyday jazz gigs, therby becoming a perfectly passable jazz pianist who sounds like a jazz pianist.
Tradition is also the main force behind this, but that is no excuse to never push to have the role of the left hand evolve, surely!
Personally I think it is up to the many pianists of my generation who are not mixed-up in the factional dealings of jazz in the late 80's-90's, but who also have a solid understanding of and interesting in early jazz, and other kinds of music that utilise the full potential of the piano. It is our job now to make it work.

Jazz piano rant: over.


  1. Hi Mark

    I'm not a pianist but it's a very good point - have you checked out the Russian pianist Simon Nabatov? If not you definitely should - he's one of the most underrated improvising pianists in the world - a real phenomenon. Here he is playing a very well known Brazilian piece - lots of left hand here!

    There's a good interview with him here too:


  2. Another thought - Fred Hersch. He uses a lot of contrapuntal/polyphonic left hand stuff, whether in a trio or solo setting. And Brad Mehldau studied with him, which makes sense when you hear Brad's use of counterpoint. Hersch made a great trio album in the 80s with Marc Johnson and Joey Baon called 'Horizons' that has some killer contrapuntal stuff on it - especially on 'Moon and Sand'

  3. ...for sure Marc, great point...might I add to the above Danilo Perez's 'Impressions' from Central Avenue...RH 4th-tone-4th two octaves above middle C with LH wailing countermelody...should be more of it, and I'm looking forward to hearing more of it in your music! Dunno how I'm gonna work it into 'Beat It' though (or my organ playing for that matter!)...

  4. Bill Evans uses a lot of contrapuntal playing, sometimes up to four moving voices. Not, however, in a trio context. Which brings me to my question: how do you work on integrating that stuff into your playing? Any good exercises?

  5. I echo Jurg's question and share your concern. My teacher encourages me to learn everything in both hands. It's very liberating and makes me feel more connected with the instrument (my fingers begin to hurt, for example!)

  6. @primavera: One thing I just found: There is an excercise on the website of pianist Phil DeGreg; you can google his site and find a "Chorale Excercise" under "Educational". This is a beginning, I feel. Any more suggestions?

  7. I really love the sound coming from the piano. Every time that i listen this rhythm i feel comfortable and i can improve my mood. I like to read useful information too, so this blog is amazing. I must to say that i found another one,that i considered interesting too, called costa rica investment opportunities i invite you to visit it.

  8. Here's another useful resource: Luke Gillespie, Stylistic II/V7/I Voicings for Keyboardists (Aebersold). See lesson 9, "Contrapuntal ii V I Chord Voicings". Gives you a lot of excercises to work on.