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In-Depth Post 6: As it Approaches

Another two weeks have passed, and I’m still working hard at my in-depth project. It’s been difficult finding time to practice, amid various performances for drama, preparation for a classical piano festival next week, overnight hikes on the weekends, and the never-ending demands of being a TALONS student, but I have found time to hunker down and jam out to some jazz piano. Here’s a recording of I Hear a Rhapsody, composed by George Fragos, Jack Baker, and Dick Gasparre:

Here is a recording by the legendary Bill Evans:

I’ve been experimenting a lot with different voicings, and when to use which voicings in relation to the situation. It’s definitely a challenge, since I have to think of what to play on the spot, and it has the possibility of not sounding good in the context of the piece. However, the more I try things out, the more I can understand which voicings will work and if they can be applied in other songs as well. The voicings definitely are able to add more colours to the piece, and can fill it out more.

I also had the chance to practice twice with the combo, and we worked on Holy Land (I was unable to get a recording, but will when we meet again). The leader of the combo, Ben (check out his blog here), has been passing on his advice during our rehearsals, and I’ve made sure to record it. It’s definitely come in handy when I’m playing in an ensemble.

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In just a few days, I will be performing at Parkwood Manor (an old folk’s home) with Tori (check out her lovely blog here). We’re planning on playing a few jazz pieces, including Autumn Leaves (she’ll be singing while I play), and I’ll play a few other songs. It’s the first time I’ll be performing jazz piano, and it probably will be pretty nerve-wracking. We’ll see how it goes!

Due to my unavailability for most days after school, and possible lesson dates falling through, I wasn’t able to meet with my mentor this week. However, I looked at conversations I’ve had in past lesson with him, and found that there are several examples of what is to be explored this post with de Bono’s How to Have a Beautiful Mind: Concepts, and Alternatives.

Concepts:

  • A major concept raised by my mentor in almost every session is about improvisation. It’s interwoven into basically every piece of jazz, and I’ve spent a lot of time working on it with him. Most recently, he spoke about various practical ideas related to improvisations: playing less frequently, using motives to create a more cohesive improvisation, while still keeping a strong rhythm in the non-improvising hand.
  • Another concept has to do with voicings. It may seem like a “practical idea”, but the importance of voicings is so profound that it has various practical ideas within it. For example, a few practical ideas would include playing more than just the root, 3rd, and 5th of a chord, playing chords in inversion to give them a different sound, and playing exploring the best pitch combinations that would make up a “jazzy” chord.
  • Finally, the last concept I’ve learned is about accompanying, or “comping”. A lot of wisdom has been passed down by my mentor, but also Ben (the leader of the combo). As seen in the photo above, I’ve kept track of what he’s told me. At my last mentor session, my mentor spoke a lot about “comping”. A main practical idea he gave me was to play less. Another was to thin out the texture by splitting notes between my two hands.

Alternatives:

  • Voicings in themselves are alternatives, since they are a different way to play chords. The first time I played a piece for my mentor, he already started to encourage me to use inversions and different ways to play chords. They definitely sounded better afterwards, and these are alternatives that I still explore every time I play jazz piano.
  • A major alternative during this project has been about the direction my project is going. At the start, I thought that it was a lot more linear, with me focusing on scales, then rhythms, then improvisation. But my mentor gave me an alternative, by showing me that those three elements of jazz (along with countless of others) were interwoven together, and could be learned at the same time.
  • One more detailed alternative came a few months(!) ago, when I had just finished playing a piece for my mentor. At the end of most jazz pieces, the pianist ends off with a decoration of sorts, mostly an arpeggio, or some random melody. However, my mentor offered me an alternative that I could use for the endings of that piece: a rolled chord. It made a lot more sense in the context of the piece, and I’ve been exploring different kinds of endings to jazz pieces every since.

 

A little over a month to go!

You never master the instrument. You always just strive to get better.

-Bill Evans

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In-Depth Post 5: Distilling it Down

A short conversation between me and myself this morning:

Lucas: It’s April. Yay

Lucas: What.

Lucas: Does that mean…it’s SUMMER SOON?

Lucas: No?

Lucas: Does that mean…it’s Aprilmayjune now?

Lucas: Yes…but no.

Lucas: OH NO.

Lucas: Yep.

(Both Lucases in unison): THREE MONTHS OF IN-DEPTH HAVE PASSED!

Spooky. (photo from https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/46/05/69/4605698164f3d78307c5912381538465.jpg)

Anyway, this fictitious conversation has been occurring in my head pretty often; the fact that this endeavour is more than 60% done scares me (about how much I’ve been neglecting it recently because of the intense school workload, how I have to perform in a few months, etc.) But then I look back, and realize how much I’ve learned in such a short period of time, especially having not known anything about jazz piano before I started.

I did get around to recording one piece, however, and that is Tempus Fugit by the great Bud Powell.

Here is a much more professional recording, by Bud Powell himself:

I thought it was a nice, quick and fun piece to play, and I also worked on it with my mentor during my lesson.

The combo has started to meet more frequently, because we are actually planning on performing at Frankie’s Italian Kitchen and Bar some time in June with the other jazz combo in Gleneagle, as well as the jazz band. Also, I’m performing at an old folk’s home on April 16th, so there are several opportunities coming up where I can actually start playing in front of crowds.

Tonight, for the first time in nearly one month (due to vacations and busy schedules), I met with my mentor. We worked on Tempus Fugit, as well as a tune I’ve been playing for a while, Holy Land. The main focus was how to “comp” (short for accompanying, which is what to play when other instruments are improvising). The first time I played it, he mentioned that it was very dense and thick. This was due to me playing the full chord (four notes) in both hands, totaling eight notes and a pretty muddy sound! After several attempts, we finally pared down the sound to only a couple of notes in each hand at once, and it sounded much, much better. Afterward, he then spoke to me about silence in “comping” and how it was totally appropriate to take a break for a few bars to help add more tension. Through our lessons, I’ve noticed that he comes back to this statement a lot: that silence is just as important as sound. Not 15 minutes later, when we were speaking about improvising, he told me again how important silence was in a good solo. He also taught me an important skill: humming. It may sound weird (it did to me at first!), but it’s surprising how useful singing a tune when you’re playing it can be. I think it was able to help create a melody that made more sense to me, with better melodic shape and contour, because I could sing it.

I was able to record a conversation I had with my mentor today, and I picked some quotes from it that relate to the “Six Hats” concept by Edward de Bono:

  • White hat: When listening to my conversations with my mentor, I realized that he usually starts off a concept he’s teaching me with some hard facts. This includes explaining an overview of the concept, and some basic reasons for why the concept is important. For example, today he stated that “Accompanying is basically what to play when other people are soloing. This is usually made up of chords spread out through the two hands, and…arranged in a certain way so the texture supports the soloist but does not ‘steal the show’!” These facts are objective statements that most jazz musicians would agree with. My mentor also does a great job of making sure he covers these basic concepts, so that I have a general overview of the skill he’s trying to teach me. Most of the time my mentor and I spend together (other than playing) is engaging in “white hat” conversations: he tells me facts about a skill, I respond with something I’ve heard about the skill, he tells a story that reinforces the importance of the skill, and so on.
  • Red hat: Most of the content of a “red hat” conversation between my mentor and I are usually before and after I play. He suggests an idea that I could have, and doesn’t necessarily explain it. This is probably because he wants me to try it out for myself, and he has an intuition that it will work (it usually does!). Today, before a solo, he played a few melodic ideas for me, and said to “go with it, and see what happens”. I was a little apprehensive at first, but then realized his lengthy experience playing jazz piano gave him an idea that he had a good feeling about. Also, after I play something, the first thing he says is “good”, or “not bad”, or “there you go”, and so on. I believe that these statements are based purely off of my mentor’s intuition, and he said what his first thought was after I had finished playing.
  • Black hat: In our conversations, my mentor had to do some “black hat” filtering when he was teaching me a skill. He’s used to teaching older students at Capilano University, so being faced with a beginner might be a bit of an adjustment for him. That’s why he focuses on teaching me more basic, simple skills that I can easily understand and learn quickly. When he gave me advice about “comping”, he didn’t teach me something that professionals do, but rather a small skill (“try splitting up the chords between your hands”) that I could incorporate into my playing right away.
  • Yellow hat: My mentor is very skilled at explaining why something should work, and backs it up with reasons and evidence (white hat). For example, when explaining “comping” today, he said that “playing less notes with only a few players sounds like a bad idea, but in reality, that’s not the case. In a whole group setting, the thinner texture from one instrument can go a long way for a better sound, and be a very useful tool in most cases.”
  • Green hat: “Green hat” thinking is inherently included in every single lesson with my mentor, because jazz in itself is an incredibly creative genre and always opens itself up to new possibilities. My mentor, rather than naming alternatives and boxing me into a solo with a predetermined plan, opens things up and suggests methods that can allow me to flourish. This meeting, he taught me about humming, and said that it was “a great way to open up new ways to play, while still making sure the improvisation makes sense and is coherent”. That, in a way, is a great microcosm of the “green hat”: creating new ideas and opening paths for exploration while still making sense for others in order to create a more productive atmosphere.
  • Blue hat: Perhaps the most important hat, the “blue hat” made its way several times into my lesson tonight. Before each lesson begins, my mentor always asks me what I’ve been working on, and what I want to play for him. We then make some goals for the lesson, such as “learning new voicings”, or “basic improvisation”. That helps focus the lesson into a series of small benchmarks we want to meet. This lesson, I suggested that we work on “comping”, as well as some improvisation. Those were the main two goals for the lesson, and we definitely met them!

Another post done, and I’m still learning more and more! Aprilmayjune, here we go.

Don’t worry about playing a lot of notes. Just find one pretty one

-Miles Davis

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