The Canadian Jazz pianist Eric Gilson has kindly agreed to share some thoughts on jazz piano here, after the previous pianoways post about piano jazz in general. Before starting the interview I had the pleasure of listening to Eric perform brilliantly in a hotel lounge in Basel, Switzerland. Unfortunately, Eric doesn't have any up to date recordings, but he can be found on YouTube with older clips.
Pianoways: Eric, how did you become a jazz pianist?
Eric: My father was a classical flutist but he played jazz saxophone too. Apparently, he always wanted to be a jazz saxophone player. He put me in violin Suzuki method lessons at the age of three and a year later I started piano lessons. I was playing classical music and enjoying it thoroughly but when I was 13 I got turned on to jazz and that was the end of classical music for me. I studied with both classical teachers and jazz teachers for a while in the Royal Conservatory of Toronto and then I started working. When I was 15 one of my teachers got me a gig playing for the "Art gallery Winnipeg" and I did that for years. When I was 20 I moved to Toronto to study at the Humber College Performance Art Program which was the best school in Canada to learn how to play Jazz piano. Later on I worked on a Cruise ship.
P: How does learning jazz differ to learning classical piano?
E: Playing classical music you stay on the page and learn to add musical nuance and phrasing to what can be read. Jazz requires a clear theoretical understanding of what you are playing. You need to understand why you are playing what you are playing so you can create your own melodies and that's essentially what jazz is.
P: So music theory actually has a very important role in Jazz. Funnily, it looks so free but actually you are doing a lot of theory from the very beginning.
E: Yes, analyzing the music is a necessity to understand how to approach it, whereas simply reading the notes and interpreting them is enough to be able to play some classical music.
P: How does notation work in jazz? Do you need to know how to read music or can you do without it?
E: No, you can't do without it. However, jazz notation is strictly only the melody and what we call charts. There is a written note melody line (same as you would find in classical music but usually hand written) and chord symbols. Being able to read chord symbols written out with letters and numbers is essential.
P: Do you have any recommendations for people who are not jazz trained who would like to do a little bit of jazz improvisation?
E: Sure. Listening. Listening is the most important part of being able to replicate jazz music. Listen to classical jazz starting with some Miles Davis jazz from the 50s and 60s. If you don't know what it's supposed to sound like there is no way you can do it. And the Blues. That's where I start pretty much every student. A 12 bar blues or you could call it a three chord blues - that's a good start. Then, picking simple songs like say Summer Time, learning what chords to play, what scales to use, that would be the next step.
P: How many years does it take to become an accomplished jazz pianist?
E: I had a teacher once who said that if a jazz musician has been playing for one year then they are like a one year old. After playing jazz for 6, 7 years they are 7 year olds. You know, when you're 18 you can drink but you're not really an adult until you've been playing jazz for 30 years. It takes a lifetime, the studying is constant, it never stops. Jazz piano is the most demanding art form. The amount of hours and years that are required are incomprehensible.
In my intensive years it was eat- sleep- breath- music. Everything went towards the music. When I wasn't playing , it was Mental practice. I was eating to play, sleeping to play, and if it wasn't playing then it was listening: it was a total immersion. You do as much as you possibly can and still you're just scratching the surface. There are geniuses who somehow, intuitively do what would take a normal person thousands of years to put together, I try not to think about it...
P: Who are the big names now? who is your favorite musician?
E: As a piano player I would say Brad Mehldau. Musically and technically as well as pushing the boundaries of the style, he is very impressive. My favorite classical Jazz pianist would be Chick Corea. He is still doing really cool things.
P: Thanks you so much Eric for your time and insight!
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- The Magic of Jazz Piano
- How Important is Music Theory?
- How Much Practice Should a Piano Student be Doing?
- Interview with Ron Drotos about the Jazz Real Book