to Reality: The Editorial Role of the Pianist in a Big Band
DOWNLOAD EXAMPLES 1a AND 1b (PDF - 757KB)
The fact that each chord is not spelled-out fully may present a problem for an average high school or college band piano player. Secondly, it may not be appropriate for the player to try to play every rhythm, as this will result in an unnecessary duplication of the horn figures, thus creating a musical texture that may be too dense.
We must assume that the pianist has the option of playing some of these rhythmic figures (using his or her own voicings), while omitting others. How are these important decisions made? A careful listening to the phrasings and articulations of the horns will help the pianist to choose rhythms that punctuate or emphasize the horn phrases.3
Example 1b, from Don't Git Sassy by Thad Jones, is extremely detailed in terms of both chords and rhythms, some of which are only a sixteenth note in duration. This type of chart is difficult because it does not differentiate between structural harmonies and embellishments (e.g., neighbor chords, passing chords, etc.).4 A professional will see through all of the elaborate ornamentation and quickly get to the basic structure of a piece, and thus be able to play with considerable freedom. However, less experienced pianists will not be able to do this type of reductive analysis. To many, the piece will seem to be an anomaly rather than a variation on a common form (as this piece is). Without this understanding, a relaxed performance will be difficult to obtain. (See Example 1b)
What then, is the form and structure of this piece? It is a very simple eight-measure form (with a few variations) that is closely related to the blues. This is not immediately apparent because of the myriad (and brilliant) embellishing chords found surrounding the simple structure at the heart of the piece.5 The sheer number and complexity of these harmonic embellishments make it necessary for the pianist to make some editorial decisions. Jones' chart provides us with a great deal of information, but his intent is more likely to show us when not to play, so as not to interfere with the integrity of the horn parts. Musically then, it makes no sense to try to play what is on the page. From a technical point of view, the written part is also suspect and problematic. A pianist could certainly voice all of the chords as written, but they would be exceedingly difficult to play in a fluent and idiomatic manner.
There is also another matter to consider here – namely form. It is essential for the rhythm section members (as well as the horn players) to have a basic understanding of the piece's form. An understanding of this type allows the rhythm section to play more freely within the context of a big band (i.e., incorporating desirable elements of small group improvisation while at the same time clearly playing all of the composed elements of the big band score).
Example 1c shows the simple blues-based structure at the heart of this form. This is made apparent once the embellishing chords have been removed. (See Example 1c) As before, the detailed rhythms and chords in these measures are just too much for the pianist to try to play. However, the example's suggested piano part is easy to play, and is purposeful (it accentuates the form) and musically unobtrusive (it does not interfere with the horn figures).
DOWNLOAD EXAMPLES 1c, 2a AND 2b (PDF - 750 KB)
symbols without rhythmic notation
In the first instance, the pianist's task is not easy, but it is obvious. Basically, he or she must work out voicings for all of the chords and improvise rhythms. Example 2a, from Mambo de Memo by Matt Harris, features this type of notation. Here, the pianist's function is essentially the same as in a small group where the rhythm section interacts vigorously with the soloist; the pianist must instantly change posture and assume the role of a more active participant than anywhere else in the piece. (See example 2a)
In the second instance, the pianist's task is much more difficult. Example 2b, from Rhoda Map by Thad Jones, illustrates the idea that restraint is required on the pianist's part. Many inexperienced players simply play too much, and this detracts from the overall effect of the ensemble. Also, the horn rhythms are not shown in this example. In the piano part, Jones merely writes, "comp." It would be a mistake to simply "comp" freely in this section, as it would conflict with the horns, and make the texture much too frantic and busy. (See Example 2b)
How is it determined what is appropriate in this instance? The best advice is to have the student listen to the source recording. If no recording is available, he or she should obtain stylistically similar recordings (e.g., those of the Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, or Maynard Ferguson bands) and listen intently to what the pianists play, when they play it, and why they play it (i.e., the context, musically, of the piano figures). Register and textural variances should also be noted. In most cases, it will be found that the pianist does surprisingly little playing. Furthermore, knowledge of the horn parts is an important guide. When this knowledge is combined with sound musical judgment, the resulting piano performance is sure to be tasteful and idiomatic.
These are not easy tasks. The pianist is required not only to improvise voicings and rhythms, but also to compose a part around the figures played by the ensemble. Beyond the obvious technical skills needed, this process requires subtlety, taste, and considerable memorization.
DOWNLOAD EXAMPLE 3a (PDF - 575KB)
Even when the parts are easy, one might still choose to omit them. Since the written part in Example 3a, from A Hole Lot 'A Blues by Jim Martin,6 is very easy, why shouldn't a pianist play them? The part in question is doubled by all of the saxophones, so the pitches are not needed. However, when I performed this piece with the composer, I did not play these measures because I felt that the percussive quality of the piano detracted from the sound of the saxophones. With a professional band, the saxophone section does not need pitch or rhythm cues of a reinforcement sort. However, with a high school or college band, these cues may be of assistance. Although context is very important, musical need – not the score – is the final arbiter.7 (See Example 3a)
Notice how much of the written part has been left out. Also, notice the change of octaves in the part played. This helps it cut through the ensemble sound and provides a timbral shimmer the part would otherwise not have. These are decisions made by the pianist and are not antithetical to the arranger's intentions. In fact, arrangers expect pianists, and rhythm section players in general, to treat the parts as guides, not gospel truth.
DOWNLOAD EXAMPLES 3b, 3c AND 3d (PDF - 831KB)
In Example 3b, from Don't Git Sassy by Thad Jones, we find a moderately difficult part – a composed solo for two hands that is not doubled in any of the horn parts (in other words, it really is a "solo," as Jones writes in the part). It is a statement of the melody in the piano, and is thematically important because it is the first statement of the melody of the piece. Thus, it may be assumed that it has to be played as written. (See Example 3b)
The problem here is not in the notes themselves. This passage is not difficult for the average pianist who has achieved a moderate level of technical proficiency. It becomes more difficult when we consider the articulations, which are entirely missing from the score. In order to affect a standard "long-short" jazz phrasing on the moving eighth-note figures, the pianist must use a finger legato along with some very nuanced pedaling. The right hand part is not very tricky in this regard, as opposed to the left hand part, which would likely use fingerings of '1-4' moving to '2-5' in order to connect the two parts of second beat in measure 10 (to say nothing of the movements in measure 11).8 I am quite sure that many readers who have programmed this piece will remember the disconnected and choppy phrasings emanating from the pianist during these measures.
As a means of eliminating any difficulties from the piano part, I would suggest playing a single-note line in the right hand with only 3rds and 7ths in the left hand (most of the left hand part consists of only 3rds and 7ths to begin with). The right hand part can then be reintroduced once the student has mastered the easier version. For young or inexperienced students, or for students with small hands, the large chords in the right hand may constantly present a problem because of the repeated octaves and sevenths in the outer pitches.9 The easier version retains all of the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic information needed to introduce the theme. The compromise involves aspects of volume and timbre.
Lastly, there are examples of difficult piano passages, some of which are simply accompaniment parts, others of which are solo features. All but the most advanced students will have serious problems playing difficult written figures, especially with proper jazz phrasing and articulation. These concerns are exacerbated when very fast tempos are considered. Young students, students with smaller hands, and students without sufficient technique will strain to play these types of parts. Therefore, for both musical and technical reasons, it is best to pare down difficult parts to something more manageable.
Example 3c illustrates an extremely awkward passage from Tangerine by Victor Schertzinger. The chord in question falls on the second eighth-note of the fourth beat in measure 19. The size of the chord is too large for most hands, and moving smoothly to the next chord will prove difficult. Here, the arranger has simply written a piano reduction of the saxophone part without regard for pianistic technique. (See Example 3c) Solutions to this problem include a) leaving the part out, or b) playing the bottom note (F#) of the right hand chord in the left hand, and omitting the bass clef part.
Note that there are also chords placed in parentheses, without rhythmic indications. There is no explanation on the score as to what this means. Perhaps they are suggested voicings for comping purposes, but without knowledge of the horns' rhythmic figures, the pianist could easily overplay his or her part by using these pitches. Once again, a careful listening to the horns will determine what the pianist should play.
This style of notation (i.e., a piano reduction of the horn parts) can be very difficult to realize, especially when chords progress quickly or in a syncopated manner. In order to play with idiomatic phrasing and articulation, both exceptional finger technique and sophisticated pedal control is needed. Even then, an accomplished player (such as a high school pianist with strong technique) will have considerable difficulty because of the variety of dynamics and articulations present.
Example 3d, from The Kid From Red Bank by Neal Hefti, contains a challenging piano part. (See Example 3d) In this instance, the fast tempo of quarter note=280 is the biggest issue. Any tempo even approaching this brisk speed will be impossible for players of limited technical skills to play. Even though the difficulty of the left hand stride pattern is somewhat mitigated by the lack of right hand movement in measures 77-84, the challenge presented to an average pianist is enormous. There are several solutions (in order of increasing severity)10: a) remove all octave doublings in the left hand (beats 1 and 3) in measures 78-79, and/or b) ignore the "8[vb.]" directions in the left hand in measures 81-84, and/or c) move all of the notes on beats 1 and 3 up one or two octaves so that the left hand does not have to move far on the keyboard.
The first two solutions maintain some element of the stride pattern's excitement while the last does not. Another option would be for the pianist to play only on beats 2 and 4, while the bassist plays on beats 1 and 3. At this stage, however, the integrity of the stride pattern is totally destroyed.
I believe that herein lies one of the real strengths of jazz. It allows for players at even the most basic levels of technical prowess to express themselves using the technique available to them. Of course, the level of expression will be severely limited by the technique available, but this should not bother us. Jazz accepts beginners on their own terms, capitalizing on their creative impulse, as opposed to their technical prowess.
As educators, we need to remember that we are introducing new generations to this music and its unique methodology. We should therefore not ask for or imply a "classical" reading of jazz scores. That model is appropriate within its own style, but is inappropriate within a jazz setting.