Monday, November 9, 2015

Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 1

As part of his Masters degree thesis (focusing on jazz pedagogy and conducting), my good friend Jules Estrin asked me to complete the following questionnaire reflecting on my start as a jazz rhythm section player.  He posed the same questions to bassist Mike Downes, drummer Ted Warren and guitarist Mike Rud. I asked permission to post all of their responses here, to serve as a resource for jazz educators and students, and they all agreed.  Today I'll start with my responses, and continue the series throughout this week.

How did you get started on your primary instrument?

In high school I switched to the piano after taking about 10 years of lessons on the electronic organ. There seemed to be far more opportunities to play pianos than the organ. I started classical piano lessons at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts and joined the school jazz band in the same year. As a teenager, I really admired the piano playing skills of Gary Varty, a blind pianist who played at my church. My intrigue with how he embellished hymns was definitely a factor in my wanting to play piano.

What made you choose your instrument?

I wanted to be a guitar player, but Santa never brought me the 6-string electric guitar I requested. My hero at the time was Elvis Presley. My dad liked building Heathkit electronics projects and he built an organ. My parents enrolled me in group organ lessons in a church basement at age 5 or 6. In middle school I chose the French horn so I could sit beside a pretty girl. I wish I had stuck with it; if I had, maybe I’d now be listed in DownBeat critics/readers’ polls in the miscellaneous instrument category.

Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

In high school I started playing keyboards in rock bands. During one of our rehearsals, the drummer’s dad (Mr. Mirochnick) came downstairs with some Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson LPs and played them for us. He encouraged us to try playing in that style, and oddly enough, we did. The group that started out as a rock band named “The Camels,” ended up playing in the jazz combo division of Winnipeg’s Optimist Music Festival that year (1985). We played Pat Metheny’s “Phase Dance” and Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” (although we called it “the Dinosaur Blues” because we didn’t know any better). Both pieces were learned by ear. Gordon Foote was our adjudicator and he HATED us. He told us to go on the road as a blues band and forget about jazz. Maybe I should have listened to him.

Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

Lyle Mays with the Pat Metheny Group. I transcribed the tune “Phase Dance” and learned to play along with Lyle Mays’ solo, note-for-note.

Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

Unless really pressed for names, I like for students to transcribe whatever they enjoy listening to. If someone were to start with Snarky Puppy synth solos, I would be fine with that. For jazz to continue evolving in a healthy, natural manner, perhaps students should transcribe current stuff. Many of my younger students seem to have a decent handle on what’s currently hip. If they’re clueless, of course I will step in and make recommendations. But, they will probably progress at a faster rate, if they’re truly passionate about the stuff they are copying.

When I was a McGill music student, my piano teacher, Fred Henke told me to transcribe Bud Powell, even though at the time I was listening to groups like Pat Metheny and Oregon. I wonder what I would sound like today if my teacher were flexible enough to embrace my youthful interests, rather than pushing bebop. I’m not resentful --- just curious.

Personally, I transcribed most of the major names in jazz piano. I focused on one person at a time for 3 to 6 months, learning numerous solos for each of them. Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Barry Harris, Count Basie, Gene Harris, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, etc. Again, I’m not sure if I would advise this. I think I sound like the generic college-educated jazz pianist. If the goal in jazz is to ultimately sound individualistic, maybe we shouldn’t all be copying the same people. If the goal is to play a big band chart in the style of Duke Ellington, by all means, transcribe Duke Ellington.

I also studied the 'comping' of quite a few pianists --- Cedar Walton and Herbie Hancock especially. At first I’d just write out the rhythms they played and would clap along with the recording. Later I got more adept at identifying the chords they played.


Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?


I found a few jazz books in my high school band room, and also picked up a few at St. John’s Music store in Winnipeg. I remember devouring Frank Mantooth’s book “Voicings for Jazz Keyboard”.  I even got Frank to sign it when he adjudicated my high school band, and he got a kick out of how excited I was to meet him when I asked him for his autograph.

During the summers I took a few lessons with George Laks, who is now Lenny Kravitz’s keyboard player. George grew up in my neighborhood and was a few years older than me. At that time he was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and would come home to visit his mom. He taught me about chord voicings mostly.

Before preparing audition tapes for university music schools, I had a lesson with Ron Paley. He showed me what scales worked with the chords in the required audition tunes. This was a major revelation to me.

My biggest resource was a used record store on Corydon Ave. Many Saturday afternoons were spent going through the record bins and I’d come home with 5 or so LPs at a time.

Today there’s YouTube, which is such an amazing resource. All the major recordings and videos seem to be uploaded in one place. If a young pianist were to stumble upon Hank Jones, for instance, he could look him up, hear a cross-sampling of his playing, and observe his physical approach to playing the instrument.

What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

Primary role: outlining harmony
Secondary role: rhythmic punctuations
(Soloing would be much lower on the list.)

Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

At the risk of appearing self-promoting, I will draw attention to the eight, free, online lessons I have posted on my website: www.earlmacdonald.com. The topics include spelling and labeling chords, left hand shells, and various voicing types. This material should be enough to get any classically-trained high school pianist up and running should he/she want to delve into the world of jazz.

Discuss any special relationships that the instruments in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

Recently I started practicing the drums. ‘Comping’ (accompanimental) rhythms on the snare drum are basically the same as what a pianist plays behind soloists. Playing the drums is making me a better pianist.

How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

In a big band, the pianist plays much less than he/she might play within a small ensemble. The harmony is outlined in the horns, so he/she isn’t responsible for laying down the chords. In big bands, I look for “holes” where I can tastefully interject myself. Playing like Count Basie is a very different skill set than playing like Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner or Chick Corea.

The key is listening carefully to recordings in a wide variety of styles and genres, and to focus solely on the piano (or your instrument) to see how they are contributing. I have done the same with bass and drums, to fully grasp the roles of my section mates.

Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

The best thing my high school band director did was give us the freedom to use the band room to jam and listen to records together, unsupervised. Instruments were there, set up and ready to play. There were instructional books for us to borrow. Guest clinicians were sometimes brought in to work with us (including Paul Reed, Kevin Dean, Gordon Foote and numerous local musicians.) Ron Paley’s professional big band was also invited to rehearse in our band room on Thursday afternoons after school. I would sometimes stay late to hear them. If I were to single out someone as an early influence, it would be Ron.

What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

Have a bookshelf with books to loan to interested students. For starters I’d suggest Mark Levine’s “Jazz Piano Book” and “Jazz Theory Book” as well as Frank Mantooth’s “Voicings for Jazz Keyboard”.

Introduce your students to a wide variety of piano players by playing recordings or YouTube videos. The discographies in the back of Levine’s books are a great place to start if you are looking for lists.

It's important to remember that there are some fundamental differences between what a rhythm section player does when reading a piece of music, compared with their wind-playing counterparts. In a big band, the horns simply try to play what’s on the page as accurately as possible. Rhythm section players, on the other hand, “interpret” the arranger’s cues, drawing upon their recall from recordings. If you don’t believe me, just look at a drum part. If the drummer played exactly what was on the page, the band would be sunk.

As strange as it may sound, I have encountered times when the only appropriate thing to play is that which is not in my part. Some piano parts include cues for what the ensemble will play, as well as bass lines. Neither would be appropriate for the pianist to play (but it helps to know what the other musicians are doing). In instances like these, I think about similar musical situations I have heard on records and try to recall what the pianist did.

What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

For pianists, I think a strong classical background is beneficial. Get a good teacher.

Devote time daily to scales and technique.

Learn to sight-read.

The more you practice in your youth, the better you will be. As busy as you may feel, know that you will have less time to practice as you grow older. Use your time wisely and log as many hours as you can, working on things you cannot do.

If jazz is your interest, start playing along with recordings, copying what you hear. You might even choose to write it down. This is the secret to getting better fast!

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About Jules:

Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer months, he has served as jazz program coordinator and artistic director at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival. He is also a devoted husband and the father of three active boys.

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