If you are a classically trained pianist, you may feel that playing jazz piano is out of your range. Jazz improvisation tends to seem like a form of magic to those who have learned to play by reading notation. Actually, these jazz players who improvise without sheet music can remind the classically trained players that there are very different ways of making music!
The Internet is full of tutorials with jazz pianists explaining how it works. However, just as in the classical traditional piano playing, there are no short cuts. To become a competent jazz pianist you must invest many, many hours of practice.
What seems like total freedom to the outsider isn't quite as free as it looks. Jazz music has its own rules and you need to know how to apply them to keep the playing consistent in whatever style you choose to improvise in. The word jazz contains a long list of sub genres, each with its own specific and special character.
What do jazz pianists drill?
A jazz pianist practices and drills certain chords and patterns in as many keys as they can, ideally in all 12. Similar to the classical pianist who will practice the major and minor scales, the jazz pianist practices a long row of scales: Pentatonic, blues, the 7 modes, whole tone scales and more.
The equivalent to the arpeggios and broken chords from the classical literature would be a long list of blocked and broken chords in different inversions, some similar some different from those the classical player will drill. As a jazz player you also need to get little riffs, patterns, lines and runs under your fingers and use them so they blend smoothly into the musical flow. All these "chunks" will be planted into the improvisations whenever appropriate.
Wrong notes don't exist
Keeping up the flow is one of the key elements of jazz playing. Since the jazz audience is potentially open to chords that are extended and stretched beyond the traditional ones, the concept of wrong notes theoretically doesn't exist. There may be some better choices and less good choices of notes, but this wouldn't be like playing wrong notes from a classical score, where the note is either right or wrong. In an improvisation, an unintended note could be embedded into the improvisation and even lead to a whole new section inspired by this unexpected turn.
Keeping time while creating
A steady beat ("good time") is absolutely crucial in jazz music. The combination of the steady beat with the typical rhythms result in the groovy jazz sound. Unlike reading a ready piece from the score, when you improvise you are creating the music as you go along. You anticipate what you would like the next section to sound like and at the same time you need to figure out how you will achieve it. Because you have spent all that practice time drilling and preparing a whole set of possibilities, it isn't as complicated as it may seem at first, but it does require a certain concentration and mindfulness that are different from playing and interpreting a given piece.
In the next blog post the experienced and inspiring jazz pianist Eric Gilson will share some ideas on piano jazz with us.
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