Bettina Urfer is a multi genre pianist. She studied classical piano at the Music Academy of Basel, Switzerland, but her spectrum includes jazz, pop and Chansons. She is currently the pianist and keyboardist of the Moody Tunes band.
Pianoways: Bettina, How did you become familiar with so many different musical styles?
Bettina: I started off with classical piano lessons but had a teacher who also showed me how to improvise and play pop songs . When I was 17 I started a band with three school mates. My parents run a dance school in Basel and we had the opportunity to play live music for the dance parties. My father was very supportive and although we weren't very good, it was a great opportunity for us.
During my studies at the music academy I chose to concentrate on classical piano and spent those years fully focused on classical music . Later I returned to band playing and we had a lot of gigs where people wanted to hear jazz or at least some background music with well known melodies so we enlarged our repertoire to include jazz.
Pianoways: When you decided to learn jazz, did you do it in a systematic structured way or was it more intuitive?
Bettina: More intuitively. I did a lot of transcribing of Oscar Peterson's playing and went to jazz concerts once a week at the local jazz club. I wanted to hear everyone , and took lessons from the players who inspired me. For half a year or so I traveled regularly to Bern (an hour away) to learn with Colin Vallon ,a Swiss French pianist who now has a label at ECM recordings.
Vallon is a great jazz player. He played like a genius but couldn't show me how he does it. It's really hard to teach what you do intuitively. So I told him I would benefit mostly if I could just listen to him play without him trying to explain what he is doing.
Pianoways: Did you also use books to help you along the way?
Bettina: There are some really good books that I used and were very helpful. But I had to read every phrase 20 times and try and figure things out which involved a lot of intensive studying. Here are some of the books I used:
Piano Jazz book by Mark Levine: this is the so called Jazz Bible but you have to be very familiar with music theory to be able to understand it.
How to Improvise by Harold Crook
Jazz Riffs by Frank Feldman: This book goes through basic jazz chord progressions (like ii V I) in the different styles. Oscar Peterson demonstrates this in a YouTube video here.
He plays stride, bebop, Bob Powel and Herby Hancock voicings, so you can hear the characteristics of each style.
Pianoways: Does playing jazz influence your classical playing?
Bettina: Yes, for sure. Rhythmical stability is a good foundation for some classical styles like the Baroque dances, that can also be played with a sort of dance swing- like feeling.
It's very interesting to see how close chord colors in the impressionism are to some jazz scales. The half tone/whole tone scale (symmetrical scale alternating between half and while tones) or the whole tone scale for instance are often used in both jazz and the impressionistic music.
When I play Jazz I play everything by heart- I have to know the pieces really well to be free for the improvising. I try to play the classical pieces with this idea in mind too: to play them by heart and entirely understand their structure and chords. If I miss a few notes in a classical piece it's no problem because I know the piece, I know how it will continue, so I easily find my way back. Jazz has increased my sense of freedom when playing classical pieces.
I accompanied a boy here at the music school recently, who played a Bach violin concerto. His teacher asked me if I would accompany him but she didn't have the piano score yet. I said I would do it, went home and listened to the piece on YouTube a few times and played along with the recording. A few days later the violin teacher handed over the piano score for the accompaniment but I already knew my part. I checked the written music for a few details but I already knew how I wanted to play it.
Actually, I played less notes than what was written in the score but I think it was a better arrangement. These orchestra arrangements for piano are sometimes very awkward to play. My goal is to find the best sound, rather than to play every single note just because the arranger put them on the paper even if it doesn't sound good. Of coarse I could do this because the original piece was written for orchestra, the piano version is an adaption that can be done in many different ways. This would not the case with classical music written originally for the piano...
It is very helpful to be able to work things out by ear. While I am playing I can follow , thinking: "now it's A minor, next there is a modulation to D minor , then there is a sequence around the circle of 5ths, now we have some diminished chords ": I know the big picture and can work it out in a way that works best for me. This is what I learned from the jazz.
Pianoways: What do you think of the idea of taking classical pieces and jazzing them up?
Bettina: I like the idea but it depends very much on how it is done. The well known great musician, composer and arranger Jacques Loussier did a fantastic Bach project in jazz style. If you do it like him it's great. He takes the classical piece very seriously, he understands it entirely - you hear how he develops it afterwards and he does it with really good taste, always referring back to the original piece. But to just take a piece and do a cheap cross over is not my style.
Pianoways: what does it feel like to improvise in front of an audience?
Bettina: When you really improvise and are totally immersed in the music it generates a special atmosphere. The audience senses these moments when new music is created, and appreciates them.
Pianoways: Thank you so much Bettina!
Pianoways on Facebook
- The Magic of Jazz Piano
- Interview with Jazz Pianist Eric Gilson
- Interview with Forrest Kinney about Improvisation